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The EPA's new rules point to EVs being the future — but consumers have their doubts

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Just last week, the EPA set some strict rules on vehicle emissions that are supposed to make the auto industry quickly transition to electric vehicles. EVs have been hailed as a solution to combat climate change, but how effective are they? NPR's podcast The Sunday Story asked listeners for their questions on EVs and climate change.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: What is the environmental impact of making all of these batteries for electric vehicles?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Is the lithium even better for the environment, or is it partly worse?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: How environmentally friendly are electric vehicles at this point?

RASCOE: NPR's business desk correspondent Camila Domonoske covers cars and energy, and she joins us now. So Camila, what's your take?

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Yeah, there's a lot of conversation about it. And I think it's raised this question in a lot of people's minds about whether this whole thing is maybe kind of a greenwashing scam, and EVs actually aren't any cleaner at all. So to answer this sort of big overarching theme in the questions, I called up Georg Bieker. He's with the International Council on Clean Transportation.

GEORG BIEKER: Electric cars have only one-third of the climate impact of combustion engine cars, so they are much better.

DOMONOSKE: Now a third is not zero, right? But it's dramatic. That's a significant difference. And electric vehicles are cleaner than gas cars, even in places like China and India where their power grids rely overwhelmingly on coal. That's the big picture. But people had a lot of specific questions too. So let's go ahead and let's dig into the details.

RASCOE: Let's start with this question about lithium mining. It came from our listener Austin Kampen from Augusta, Mo.

AUSTIN KAMPEN: I hear it from a lot of folks that the mining of the lithium needed for some of these car batteries is causing ecological issues. Is this true? And if so, how does this environmental impact compared to vehicles that run on fossil fuel?

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. So I called up Thea Riofrancos. She's a political scientist. She focuses on the impacts from these kinds of mines, and here's what she had to say to Austin.

THEA RIOFRANCOS: That's such an excellent question, and the answer is yes, it's true. Yes, lithium mining and cobalt mining and nickel mining and all of the mining that goes into standard batteries has environmental impacts. How does this compare to fossil fuels? A traditional car means mining every day, means mining every time it's used. It needs the whole extraction complex of fossil fuels in order to power it. And the extraction of the crude and the refining of the crude into gasoline is itself environmentally impactful and produces emissions and is energy intensive. And then burning that every time, you know, we turn on the ignition and accelerate the car is producing a mix of climate impacts from the emissions and then local particulate matter as well that harms the air kind of around the car.

DOMONOSKE: So she says, if you consider all of these impacts up front and the life of the vehicle, the mining, the pollution that goes on, fossil fuel vehicles are overall worse for the environment than EVs, though she gave the caveat that for larger EVs, the difference does get smaller.

RASCOE: But what about if you have a car right now, and it's running just fine? Is it worth dumping your gasoline-powered car for a new vehicle? Here's a question from Ali Mercural from Portland, Ore.

ALI MERCURAL: I've been told that the biggest environmental impact of a car is in the manufacturing, so what I want to know is, is that better from an environmental standpoint to buy an electric vehicle now? Or is it better to keep driving the car that you have, even if it uses gas, and wait until you definitely need a new car before buying an EV?

DOMONOSKE: It's a super common question. I want to start with the first bit because that's a really common misconception. Actually, most of the impact of a vehicle, particularly a gas-powered vehicle, is from running the vehicle, not from building it. And that's why it doesn't take all that long compared to the lifespan of a vehicle to make up for the emissions from building a new car. Now, that said, Ayesha, fully says it totally makes sense to wait until you're ready for a new car to buy a car. And that's not from an emissions standpoint but just from a practical one because cars are super expensive, right? Financially, if you're happy with your current car, it's probably not going to be a good choice to swap it out for an EV unless you have, you know, buy-a-car-for-fun money.

RASCOE: OK, well, it's nice if you do. There are always going to be people who are going to say, look, I mean, if the climate is at stake, should we be buying cars at all? We got this question from Thomas Guffey of Los Angeles.

THOMAS GUFFEY: Wouldn't it just be better to design cities around mass transit and use mass transit than trying to get everyone to convert over to electric vehicles?

DOMONOSKE: Yes, like, full stop. That is a lower impact on the environment. I'll also note we got some questions from listeners about e-bikes. Similarly, yes, e-bikes have a significantly smaller impact, like, much smaller than buying a big, full-sized car, right? Those are cleaner things, and those are also necessary. In order to meet climate goals, we will need to build cities so that they're more walkable and have better mass transit and support bike infrastructure. And even with all of that, we will still need cars. And EVs are definitely cleaner than a similar gas car, and they're definitely not as clean as not having a car at all. But within the world of electric vehicles, you can also reduce the impact of buying a vehicle by getting the smallest car that you can.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Camila Domonoske, who covers cars and energy. Thank you for being with us.

DOMONOSKE: Thank you so much for having me.

RASCOE: You can hear the full conversation on NPR's Sunday Story podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.