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Greening the Road Ahead: Navigating Challenges for Just Transitions to Electric Vehicles

by Julie Arbit, Brad Bottoms, and Caroline Egan


The Northern Hemisphere is experiencing the hottest summer in history–so far– and the news is filled with stories of unprecedented and record-breaking heat waves, fires, and flooding that will likely intensify as global temperatures continue to rise. Our global carbon output needs to be drastically reduced in the near future if we wish to avoid the most catastrophic outcomes of global warming. While transitioning to Electric Vehicles (EVs) is not and never will be the silver bullet that resolves our climate change, we must acknowledge that electrification, as well as the overall goal of moving away from combustion engines towards electric, is a worthy step in the right direction. EVs can and should serve as a complement to a larger shift towards robust public transportation and a cleaner energy grid. Climate change demands immediate action, and that action must be multimodal. However, our research team argues that, in the pursuit of a greener world it is important to recognize, understand, and address the potential challenges and consequences of current EV policies. Here, we would like to highlight potential economic, environmental, and labor issues that we believe must be addressed in order to ensure that our pursuit of a greener future may also facilitate a one that is also more just. 

The Stakes: Confronting the Consequences of Climate Change

This year has seen alarming headlines highlighting the effects of unchecked climate change: intense heat in Phoenix, severe flooding in Vermont, historic blizzards in Buffalo, and dwindling water levels along the Colorado River basin due to drought. We are barreling toward a warmer and more chaotic climate that will raise the commonality and severity of weather events. Unless actions are taken quickly, we will surpass the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) first goal post of an elevation compared to the pre-industrial era of 1.5 degrees Celsius by the early 2030s. We are projected to exceed 2.0 degrees Celsius if we do not reach global net zero CO2 emissions by 2050. Given these dire scenarios, governments and other organizations are seeking solutions to drastically reduce carbon emissions before these deadlines. As of July 2023, eight countries have achieved net zero emissions, and three–Bhutan, Panama, and Suriname–have even transitioned to carbon-negative emissions. Despite this progress, nations with larger economies that contribute the most to the world's carbon footprint have yet to reach similar achievements. For instance, the United States far exceeds other nations by carbon footprint, contributing over 14% of global emissions despite having only 4.3% of the global population. The U.S. has committed to net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050, with certain sectors setting aggressive goals by 2030.  

Driving Change: The Push for Electric Vehicles

Based on a 2021 EPA report, transportation accounts for the largest portion of total U.S. GHG emissions. A key element of the Biden administration's environmental policy to address this is promoting the production and sale of EVs, aiming for 50% of all new cars sold to be electric by 2030. Electric vehicles not only cut the lifetime emissions of a personal vehicle in half, but also significantly reduce the release of toxic air pollutants like sulfur dioxide which are associated with negative respiratory health. The administration is investing $7.5 billion to build a national network of EV chargers, offering credits and grants to help manufacturers adapt existing factories for EV production, and allocating an additional $2.8 billion to stimulate domestic battery production for electric vehicles. California has also pledged over $1.8 billion since 2010 towards “clean” vehicles; the bulk of this funding goes towards rebates for new EV purchases. Car companies, like Ford, and electronic manufacturers, like Samsung, have responded by making their own investments in creating US-based manufacturing plants for EV batteries and cars. 

Labor Justice Concerns

As UAW union leaders meet with Detroit’s Big Three car companies (Ford, GM, and Stellantis) to negotiate a new four-year contract, it is clear that without retooling and proper safeguards these massive investments may leave the average worker behind. The shift to electrification has raised concern about job security and union negotiating power. While companies are retooling some gas-engine production centers to EV plants, many decades-old plants that provided good-paying, union jobs to Midwestern communities are closing, and the biggest new factories are opening in southern states, such as Tennessee and Kentucky, that are politically and culturally hostile to unions. Several of these new plants are also joint collaborations with South Korean companies, which raises additional questions about the process of union negotiation in a non-traditional corporate structure. The UAW says these decisions cost workers. For instance, workers in an Ultium Battery plant near Lordstown, Ohio, which is a joint venture between General Motors and South Korea’s LG Energy Solutions, receive a starting pay of $16.50 per hour, roughly half of what GM workers earned at a GM gasoline-powered car plant in the same city before it was closed in 2019.  The plant’s workers have voted to join the UAW, but do not yet have a negotiated contract. In some instances, the production of EVs raises additional questions about job security. Ford and Volkswagen have both reported that EV production will require 30%-40% fewer workers. Crucially, the UAW is not opposed to EVs. Rather the UAW seeks to ensure that union workers from gasoline-powered car plants are able to transition to new EV production jobs, that these new jobs pay fair and equitable wages that match those found in gasoline-powered car plants, and that wages for all workers will continue to keep pace with inflation and the cost of living even as automakers seek to compete with EV makers like Tesla, avoid high labor costs by relying on cheaper, non-union workers. The current shift to EVs demonstrates that good environmental policies will not necessarily align with good labor policies unless and until worker needs are explicitly addressed. Unions and collective bargaining are essential tools to ensure that workers have a seat at the table as we work together to build a greener future. 

Addressing Environmental Equity

Promoting EVs also requires addressing disparities in access and benefits.  The luxury car pricing of new EVs can deter potential buyers concerned about upfront costs, maintenance, and energy. Lower-income individuals face more challenges balancing the costs of vehicle ownership with other obligations and are more likely to carpool or use public transit, so offering an incentivized market solution to emissions won’t be as effective at a neighborhood scale.A decade worth of data from the California rebate program case study highlights these disparities. In 2016, the program was modified to institute income caps and increase rebates for lower-income buyers. Even after this series of equity-driven modifications, historically marginalized communities received substantially fewer rebates, saw fewer air quality improvements, and experienced more of the air and road quality burden that the weight of EVs causes than their higher-income neighbors. A new set of expansions is underway, including support for residential charging stations, but these modifications only marginally bolster emissions reductions, and do not serve the broader transportation needs of lower-income communities. Continuing to systemically tout this form of participatory climate action will further exacerbate the health inequities for more vulnerable populations.The other relevant factor for equitable climate action in transportation is the concentration of emissions from electricity generation. “Clean” vehicles increase the need for electricity production in the U.S., where only 20% of energy comes from renewable sources. The production of battery materials, such as lithium, can also be incredibly water-intensive, putting stress on already fragile water ecosystems. The air and water quality effects of power generation and material extraction facilities disproportionately harm environmental quality in neighboring communities, which tend to house more affordable housing and lower-income residents.

Balancing Priorities: Delays in Systemic Change

The emphasis on incentivizing EV ownership may divert resources from other necessary actions in the fight for climate justice such as the expansion of public transportation. The most effective solutions to mitigating transportation emissions are transitions in public transportation and bike usage. Relying wholly on broad EV campaigns may sideline further development and promotion of climate action in other modalities and sectors. It also diverts attention and research from the challenges with EVs including “clean” energy production emissions, toxicity from tires due to increased weight, and waste. This focus also exhausts public attention and resources from advocating for climate action in other largely privatized sectors, such as agriculture and manufacturing.

In conclusion, while EVs offer a promising avenue toward a greener future, addressing environmental, economic, and labor issues is vital to ensuring that this transition also promotes social justice. A comprehensive and equitable approach is essential to navigate the complex challenges of transitioning to EVs and achieving a more sustainable and just world. The current focus on EVs as the transportation solution to emissions should not substitute robust, multi-modal climate action that utilizes integrated resource planning and just labor practices to equitably and effectively mitigate the climate crisis. Commitments to equity in addressing this emissions source must take into account the historical and geographical inequalities in transportation that pose many challenges for incentive-based programs and market-driven climate action such as personal vehicle “greenification.” A greener and more just future is possible, but only if we plan for it.