New Zealand is heading towards an electric future as the Government sets a deadline at which to cease imports of petrol or diesel cars and a plan to make the use of such vehicles more costly to subsidise a new rebate on the purchase of electric vehicles.
Surely that's got to be good for the planet, right?
Or is it a decision made by very well paid people who live in big cities, as far removed from the general demographic of New Zealand as it is possible to be?
Currently, the motor trade in this country deals in the internal combustion engine, with electric vehicles making up a small percentage of the market. It is like this for a number of reasons.
Firstly, electric vehicles are expensive to buy. Even with the rebate, an electric car to replace a petrol or diesel model is going to cost a lot more. Yes, there are second hand vehicles available, but they have been replaced by their owners for a good reason: the battery is older and has reduced capacity. Reduced capacity means reduced range, and in a country where plug-in stations are few and far between, that reduces the viability of such vehicles. Who wants to run out of juice in the middle of nowhere?
Electric vehicles are evolving. More expensive marques have produced high quality cars providing comfort, safety and speed – but your average New Zealander can't afford one.
Local man Jamie O'Leary has rightly pointed out that to replace his current workhorse with an electric vehicle of similar strength and usefulness will put him and many other tradies and farmers well out of pocket. The alternative is to stay with petrol or diesel and pay the extra to subsidise those able to afford EVs. That's subsidising the rich.
Secondly, how green are they? While it's true they can trundle along with little or no emissions, what did it take to build them, especially the batteries?
New Zealand has no control over the manufacture of electric cars, as we have no car manufacturing industry of our own. Therefore, we will be importing vehicles made in countries where electricity production is neither clean nor environmentally friendly.
Car batteries are produced from rare earth elements (REEs) – lithium, nickel, cobalt and graphite which have to be mined from below the surface of the earth. Despite the word 'rare' in their title, we are in no immediate danger of exhausting the supply of such elements, but with global demand for batteries increasing with every stroke of the environmentalist's pen, that could change, unless battery development shifts to more sustainable minerals.
At the moment, the energy used to mine these elements means electric cars are not as green as we might think. Then, if the electric grids used for production rely on coal fired power stations, we are multiplying the damage done, all in the name of saving the planet. The irony is excruciating.
And what about the price of electricity in New Zealand?
As a consumer I am already well aware of the corporate greed that has made my electricity costs much higher than my counterparts in many other parts of the Western world.
Forgive my cynicism, but once we all need to charge our cars from the national grid, power prices are going to skyrocket with the increased compulsory demand, in my opinion.
But there is a further concern.
Cobalt is problematic as its extraction from the ground produces tailings and slags that can leach into the environment. Nearby communities are vulnerable to high exposure to cobalt and other metals. The smelting process too can mean a large amount of noxious emissions into the air.
As much as 70 per cent of the world's cobalt supply is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a substantial proportion in unregulated "artisanal" mines where workers — including many children — dig the metal from the earth using only hand tools at great risk to their health and safety, human rights groups warn. Such exploitation is rife, according to many reliable sources.
That makes it hard to feel good about driving your electric car.
Lithium is mined mostly in Australia and South America but it requires excessive use of water to extract it, drawing on valuable agricultural resources to bring the ore to the surface.
The water needed for battery production means that manufacturing electric vehicles is about 50 per cent more water intensive than internal combustion engines.
As things stand and with the present level of technology, electric cars are not as green as you might think. Of course, that can change and mining will have to be refined to meet the requirements of environmentalists, but how long will that take? And how long will unscrupulous mine operators in other parts of the world continue to enrich themselves by using child labour and forcing workers to undergo great risk, all to appease the conscience of the Western world which wants to stop using oil?
I think it's commendable that people in Government see the need to look to a cleaner future, but it looks like there's a heck of a mess to clean up, politically, industrially and technologically, before we start looking at penalising petrol and diesel users and forcing lower paid New Zealanders to take the electric bus.