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Why EVs Are Not Sufficient Solution to Climate Change in Africa

By Yemi Olakitan

Electric vehicles (EVs) are often seen as a solution to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, but they are not a panacea for climate change. There are several reasons why EVs are not sufficient to tackle climate change in Africa.

EVs are still dependent on the electricity grid, which may not be reliable, accessible, or clean in many parts of Africa.

According to the IEA, only 43% of the population in sub-Saharan Africa had access to electricity in 2019 and the majority of the electricity was generated from fossil fuels.

Therefore, EVs may not significantly reduce emissions if they are powered by dirty or unreliable electricity sources. EVs are not affordable or available for most people in Africa, especially in rural areas. The average cost of an EV in 2020 was US$40,000, which is far beyond the reach of most Africans.

Moreover, the supply and demand of EVs in Africa are very low, as only 0.01% of the global EV sales in 2020 were in Africa. The lack of infrastructure, incentives, and awareness also hinder the adoption of EVs in Africa.

EVs do not address the broader challenges of mobility, accessibility, and equity in Africa. EVs are mainly designed for private car ownership, which is not the dominant mode of transportation in Africa.
Most Africans rely on public transport, walking, cycling, or informal modes such as motorcycles and minibuses. These modes are often more efficient, affordable, and inclusive than private cars, but they also face many barriers such as poor road conditions, safety issues, and low quality of service. EVs alone cannot solve these problems, and may even exacerbate them if they divert resources and attention from other sustainable transport solutions.

EVs are not the only or the best way to decarbonize transport in Africa. Improving public transport systems, such as buses, trains, and light rail, which can carry more people with less energy and emissions than private cars. Public transport can also enhance social and economic opportunities, especially for low-income and marginalized groups.

Promoting active transport, such as walking and cycling, which have zero emissions and multiple health and environmental benefits. Active transport can also improve accessibility and livability of urban areas, especially if supported by adequate infrastructure and policies.

Supporting low-carbon and low-cost modes, such as electric motorcycles, bicycles, and three-wheelers, which can provide affordable and flexible mobility options for rural and urban populations. These modes can also create jobs and income opportunities, especially for women and youth and encouraging behavioral change, such as reducing the need to travel, shifting to more efficient modes, or sharing rides, which can lower the demand for transport and emissions. Behavioral change can also save money and time, and improve quality of life.

EVs are not sufficient to tackle climate change in Africa, because they do not address the underlying issues of electricity supply, affordability, availability, mobility, accessibility, and equity in the transport sector. EVs are also not the only or the best way to decarbonize transport in Africa, as there are other alternatives that can reduce emissions and improve mobility in a more sustainable and inclusive way.

Legislators and electric vehicle (EV) manufacturers often do not disclose their motivations for promoting the climate change agenda in a continent that could face additional environmental problems should EVs be adopted at scale.

When the Africa Climate Summit was held in Nairobi, Kenya. The conference was attended by key delegates from African countries, international organisations, and the private sector. The summit was a significant event for Africa, as it was the first time African leaders had come together to discuss climate change on a continent-wide scale. It also served as a platform for multiple electric vehicle (EV) companies—including BasiGo, which serves Nairobi with 20 electric buses for public transport—to showcase their products.

The argument is that vehicles powered by fossil fuels are bad for the environment, and there is a need to shift focus to EVs as they do not use an internal combustion engine (ICE). This makes EVs a clean and eco-friendly alternative to vehicles powered by petrol or diesel.

EVs are often seen as a solution to climate change but are not without problems. They still rely on a consumerist and car-based approach to transportation, which is not sustainable in the long run. Besides, producing electric cars can harm the environment, and EVs do not address the root causes of climate change.

Carbon emissions from transport in Africa
Africa has about 72 million vehicles, but only seven of its 54 countries are responsible for most of the greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. The emissions are growing at an alarming rate of 7% per year. This is due to poor fuel quality, old vehicles, and the lack of mandatory emission tests. More than half of African countries have quality worse than European fuel quality from 30 years ago.

Assuming we don’t effectively tackle climate change and the air pollution generated by ICE vehicles, we’re facing some major issues: a widespread decline in animal and plant species, a surge in natural disasters, severe air pollution, depletion of water resources, and many other challenges. Given the substantial emissions coming from road vehicles, it’s clear that we must cut the dependence on diesel-powered engine vehicles. The solution often debated is the choice between electric vehicles and ICEs, but EVs alone might not provide a solution, given that they lack range.

The major issue with electric cars is carbon lock-in. This occurs when notable investments are made in resources such as power plants or EVs, creating incentives to keep using them. Companies and governments are reluctant to switch to better solutions because of the hefty capital investments and associated opportunities. This puzzle extends to EV companies, who may not prioritise the most effective climate crisis solutions. Afterwards, moving away from temporary fixes like mass electric car retrofits is challenging.

It is better to think beyond these partial measures to address the climate crisis. Instead of investing in massive electric car investments, Africa could allocate resources more effectively, such as building mass transit and promoting sustainable construction practices that enhance walkability and micro-mobility options. Breaking free from a vehicle-centric system is the real transformative thinking needed.

Electric vehicles offer several advantages, such as being safe to operate indoors and having a greener footprint. However, they face three significant challenges.

First, battery technology lags due to a historical setback in development. Lithium-ion batteries, common in electric cars, have limited energy density and pose safety risks in case of fires. Their production isn’t environmentally friendly, too, needing recycling to prevent pollution.

Second, the African electrical power infrastructure lacks headroom, often relying on outdated and polluting energy sources. Electric vehicles draw substantial power, mostly during non-renewable energy peak periods, compromising their environmental benefits.

Third, insufficient neighbourhood electrical capacity discourages the widespread use of electric vehicles, leading to business operational challenges.

Consider the situation in South Africa, Africa’s most industrialised economy. This year, the country has experienced frequent power outages lasting 10 hours daily. At the start of the year, even though only half of the population is connected to the electrical grid, many neighbourhoods could only support their power needs for a maximum of six hours per day. Is this the same infrastructure that is set to sustain EVs for transportation?

Commuters need to question the real reason for EVs push
Legislators often avoid discussing that electric vehicles cannot fully address the environmental issues associated with transportation. On the other hand, EV manufacturers are eager to promote electric cars as a solution, advocating for tax credits and incentives to encourage their adoption, which translates to more sales. But the reality is that electric vehicles can functionally not resolve carbon emission problems quickly and gainfully. Besides, focusing on electric buses and cars as a primary mode of transportation is highly inefficient in terms of urban space, which is another vital aspect of the climate change problem.

To make electric vehicles truly eco-friendly, Africa needs advancements in solid-state batteries, increased green energy sources like nuclear or geothermal, and the expansion of micro-grid technologies. These features and technologies are crucial for alleviating the issues associated with climate change, but full implementation may take time.

Africa needs a robust grid capable of handling increased demands. A smoother transition from fossil fuels is also necessary to avoid unnecessary complications. Transitioning to electric vehicles before addressing these key elements undercuts their positive impact on climate change and introduces environmental and societal challenges the continent is unprepared for.

Sometimes, an iterative approach is better than rushing into new technology. Opting for hybrid vehicles over electric ones may be a more sustainable choice until other issues associated with transitioning to EVs have been addressed. Achieving green EVs requires a holistic approach, covering green energy storage, generation, and reliable distribution, though not all elements will be in place in this decade.

Electric vehicles (EVs) are not the sole solution to climate change. Although EVs emit far less greenhouse gas (GHG) than internal combustion engine vehicles, especially when powered by renewable energy, they do not address all aspects contributing to climate change. EVs represent only one component of the broader transportation sector, which contributes approximately 27% of U.S. GHG emissions.

Additionally, EVs require materials and energy for manufacturing, which contribute to their overall carbon footprint. Furthermore, EVs cannot replace other sectors that contribute substantially to GHG emissions, such as agriculture, industrial processes, and buildings

Moreover, EVs face several challenges, including the need for substantial improvements in battery recycling and raw material sourcing, as well as the development of a robust charging infrastructure. Without addressing these issues, EVs alone will not halt climate change.

Researchers emphasize that focusing solely on EVs risks delaying progress towards climate goals. They suggest that policymakers should consider a holistic approach involving various strategies, such as improving public transport options, encouraging active mobility, and implementing carbon pricing mechanisms.

 

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