The Electric Hummer’s Dirty Secret

The transportation industry’s contribution to the climate crisis is no secret. An approximate 28% of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) in 2021 were courtesy of the transportation sector. Consequently, the pressure to electrify is intense and electric vehicles (EVs) are taking the United States by storm. However, electrification is far from a silver bullet. Electric power made up 25% of the GHGs in 2021, which is shockingly comparable to that of transportation. In 2022, 2.55 trillion kilowatt hours (or 60%) of electricity in the United States was powered by fossil fuels. An EV charged by a dirty electric grid is still a vehicle powered by fossil fuels, even without an internal combustion engine (ICE).

Relatedly, the heavier the vehicle the worse the fuel economy. For every extra 100 pounds a vehicle weighs the fuel economy worsens by 1-2%. This is true of both ICEs and EVs because a heavier vehicle has greater inertia and rolling resistance, which is notable because two of the most important factors in assessing a vehicle’s fuel efficiency are weight and engine power. By now you may be wondering if BMW’s i7 with a 536 hp completely electric engine is actually the radically sustainable purchase you were hoping it to be. (The answer is probably no!)

Perhaps the real elephant in the room here is the electric Hummer. The electric Hummer is available in both an SUV and a pickup truck, which is available up to respectively. The electric Hummers are also even bigger than the gas-powered original (2.5 feet longer and 6 inches taller). When a vehicle is this large, heavy, and powerful, electrification is frankly nothing more than a marketing campaign to comfort consumers about their environmental impact. The electric Hummer’s battery uses so much power that it emits more carbon than a Chevy Malibu with a traditional ICE. A massive vehicle requires an appropriately massive battery, and the one powering the electric Hummer weighs about as much as a Honda Civic. If that fun fact doesn’t highlight the irrefutable need to electrify smaller personally owned vehicles, I’m not sure what does. 

The discourse surrounding EVs seems to conveniently exclude emissions from sources other than the exhaust. Rubber tires, road dust, and brakes are examples of such sources. This does not even scratch the surface of the manufacturing process, which of course includes both the mining of raw materials as well as factory production. In a one-to-one comparison, all EVs are heavier than their ICE counterparts because of the unavoidable heft of a lithium-ion battery, which means electrification is far from a panacea but rather one tool in a culture shift that will contain multitudes. The most sustainable option would be to keep vehicles on the road for as long as the vehicle is safe and functional while simultaneously electrifying smaller, lighter vehicles to use in a fleet of shared-use vehicles.

To that end, the reduction of the single-occupancy vehicle is more effective in the face of the climate crisis than electrification could ever dream of being. This does not exclusively mean shared-use vehicles, though that could certainly be part of the equation. Reimagining infrastructure to promote safe walkable cities, useable bike lanes, and reliable public transit are among the most impactful priorities.

This is not to refute the concept of electrification; however, it is irresponsible and irrational to suggest electrification is a one-size-fits-all solution. We cannot maintain our current transportation habits by protecting our car-centric way of life; we cannot continue to coddle the feelings of wealthy consumers who want to sport their own large, single-occupancy vehicle by pretending EVs are net positive. Combating the 28% of GHGs contributed by the transportation industry requires holistic solutions that promote compact land use, the use of public transit, the encouragement of micromobility, and the reduction of lengthy trips. The electric Hummer leaves us in a worse position than we began by providing a false sense of activism while emitting even more carbon than before. 

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