Rabbi Argues That We Have A Moral Obligation To Adopt EVs

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A few months ago, a group of clergy met in New Jersey for an interfaith blessing of electric vehicles. Rabbi Joel Abraham of Temple Sholom drove his Chevy Volt as part of the day of educating faith leaders how EVs can help to reduce air pollution. He described Newark as “a huge port” with many challenges. “Not only do you have many diesel operated vehicles coming into the port to pick up things and take them out,” he outlined, “but also, the large equipment that’s used – the cranes, the dock vehicles, all of those things – use petroleum products and create all these fumes for the people who live in the area.” During the event, Abraham called upon clergy to take up the cause to adopt EVs, arguing that there’s a moral reason for clergy to lead on this issue.

Abraham’s comments are far-reaching. It is, indeed, time to embolden people around the world to accept the moral obligation to adopt EVs. We must advocate and lead by example in helping to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In keeping with the aspirations of the Paris Agreement on climate, we must all play our roles to achieve the objectives of the treaty by gradually phasing in an EV fleet onto our roads. There is no shortage of financial, reputational, and moral considerations to drive (pun intended) the future of EVs.

“The book of Genesis gives us a job,” Rabbi Abraham said from Mt. Olivet’s wooden pulpit in New Jersey. “We are stewards of this earth. It is our job to take responsibility for this planet.” Electric cars, he reminds us, can help us protect the earth for future generations. The event was co-hosted by Newark Baptist Ministers and Vicinity, GreenFaith, and the #ElectrifyNJ initiative of Jersey Renews. Electrify NJ is working to move New Jersey towards a clean-transportation, clean-air future.

Yet Abraham’s call to clergy to educate their congregations about EVs comes with additional considerations. The electric vehicle industry is part of a larger consumer push for a greener, more ethical economy. With electric cars estimated to make up 35% of car sales over the next 2 decades, the need to account for the processes, from initial production to final dismantlement of electric vehicles, is ever more pressing.

Given the complexity and the relatively new nature of electric vehicles, particular attention needs to be paid to the environmental reporting involving these vehicles. Retaining the green in all stages of EVs will involve precarious, multilayered decisions. When we look to adopt EVs, aren’t we really talking about a 3-part sustainability paradigm in which a supply chain and its associated production processes, the functioning of the electric vehicle, and cost considerations of all-electric transportation create a combined moral equation?

1) Adopt EVs in a Well-to-Wheel Paradigm

EVs have been promoted for their potential to reduce the transportation sector’s dependence on petroleum and to cut GHG emissions by:

  1. Using off-peak excess electric generation capacity
  2. Increasing vehicles’ energy efficiency

A well-to-wheels (WTW) analysis from Argonne National Laboratory — which examines energy use and emissions from primary energy source through vehicle operation — concluded that electrification of transportation significantly reduces petroleum energy use, but GHG emissions strongly depend on the electricity generation mix for battery recharging.

EVs can virtually eliminate the use of petroleum fuels for each vehicle mile traveled on electricity. But, to achieve significant reductions in GHG emissions, EVs must recharge from a generation mix with a large share of non-fossil sources (e.g., renewable or nuclear power generation, the latter of which has its own moral issues). Other subtle, but important, complications include the rate of technological advancement that will be made in the critical components of each vehicle technology (e.g., batteries and fuel cell) and the specific control strategy adopted by each original equipment manufacturer (OEM) for the combined operation of the electric motor and engine of EVs.

Also, the lithium-ion batteries that power these vehicles bring their own environmental reporting and sustainability challenges. Battery makers are struggling to secure supplies of key ingredients in these large power packs – mainly cobalt and lithium. The hopes of both battery electric and hybrid vehicle manufacturers hang on the mining sector finding more deposits of these precious minerals and to sourcing them in ways that are sustainable and that respect local ecosystems. These are difficult but achievable goals, such as in the the deep-sea polymetallic nodule exploration and development industry.

adopt EVs

2) Adopt EVs to Reduce GHG Emissions

As example of the need to adopt EVs, in New Jersey, transportation is the number 1 source of GHG pollution, according to DriveGreenNJ. Emissions from cars and light-trucks account for about 30% of the total hydrocarbons and oxides of nitrogen emission in the air that contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone or “smog” during the summer months.

The benefits of electric vehicles in New Jersey and elsewhere are wide-ranging and well-documented. The Center for American Progress outlines that EVs have fewer tailpipe emissions than internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, leading to public health benefits associated with better air quality. They are also quieter, reduce dependence on oil from abroad, have significantly lower fuel costs and total costs of ownership, and are one of the “most promising ways of reducing carbon emissions from the transportation sector, which is the largest contributor to US greenhouse gas emissions.”

Curious about the effects of EVs on pollution, I logged into the Union of Concerned Scientists’ “How Clean is Your Electric Vehicle?” site. The little Nissan Leaf I own produces 96 grams of CO2e and as much GHG emissions as an internal combustion engine vehicle that gets 114 miles per gallon. The energy we are using to charge our EVs matters. If consumers are recharging their vehicles with coal or natural gas, the plants that provide that energy are still giving off emissions — it is just happening outside of cities.

adopt EVs

As Rabbi Abraham notes, “In the Jewish context, what we usually talk about is that we are given not dominion to rule over the earth, but really given the responsibility to care for the earth.” He and other clergy have spoken about EVs not just as objects to be blessed but as tools for carrying out the larger spiritual missions of those faiths.

Another clergy who has spoken out about the importance of electric vehicles is Imam Saffet Catovic, Muslim chaplain at Drew University and a member of the Islamic Society of North America’s Green Mosque Initiative, who offers the analogy of a verse in the Koran. “The servants of the merciful are those who walk upon the earth softly. Commitment to walking upon the earth softly means reducing our carbon footprint.”

So why aren’t more people driving EVs? Many people are confused about incentives, as incentives differ state to state. Depending on consumers’ income level, geographic location, and electric utility, they could be eligible for a host of incentives for vehicles and/or charging infrastructure. The variation in state laws and lack of clear information has left some consumers frustrated. Charging infrastructure barriers also inhibit EV deployment. Currently, charging infrastructure is mostly in metropolitan areas in the Northeast and on the West Coast, which is similar to the geographic demand for EVs.

In order to entice more people to adopt EVs, the US government should look to the examples of Norway, China, and other countries as examples of policies that are effective at bolstering EV sales.

3) Adopt EVs to Reduce Pollution’s Effects on Society’s Most Vulnerable Members

Low-income communities and communities of color disproportionately feel the impacts of vehicle pollution and can benefit the most from the clean air and cost-saving benefits of EV. Although EV prices are dropping faster than expected, everyday consumers still need financial subsidies to overcome the cost difference and incentivize them to buy an ICE car.

This is especially true for people of color, who lack access to cars at higher rates than their white peers. The GreenLining Institute reminds us that a low-income consumer may be eligible for various purchase incentives but lack access to charging infrastructure at home or at work, making it impossible for that person to own an EV. Or a low-income person might live and work in a densely-populated city with a robust mass transit system and have no need to own a car. People living in densely-populated areas may be better served by providing access to EV car sharing services because they might only need a car once in a while or for emergencies. Many underserved community members lack familiarity with how EVs work, so increasing EV awareness ensures underserved communities gain access to the world of EVs.

GreenFaith, an environmental group that believes all people deserve a healthy environment regardless of their race or income, has called upon New Jersey elected officials to invest in electric charging stations and electrification of municipal fleets, buses, and cargo-handling equipment at ports. “Breath is life. It’s a very simple thing,” Rev. Fletcher Harper of GreenFaith said. “We all need to breathe, and it’s absolutely wrong that, in the wealthiest country in the world, there are places where the air is so dangerous that it’s not safe to breathe.” Their example can be replicated across other communities around the world….

… ‘Cause it works!

The Port Authority of NY & NJ (PANYNJ) – the largest provider of transportation infrastructure in a US metropolitan area – has joined The Climate Group’s EV100 initiative and committed to electrifying its entire fleet of vehicles and airport shuttle buses by 2030. EV100 brings together leading companies making electric transport “the new normal” by 2030, helping to address fast growing emissions from transport and reduce noise and air pollution.

Final Thoughts

The public benefits of electric vehicles are clear; they have been proven to improve air quality and reduce GHG emissions. Leaders across the US and world have been called upon to develop legislation and plans to electrify cargo handling equipment and other sources of air pollution, to electrify transit buses and diesel-powered construction equipment used in our cities, and to expand state rebates and subsidies that ensure households have access to electric vehicles. The New Jersey community gathering that enabled EV owners and charging station firms to educate faith leaders about the advantages of electric cars, buses, and cargo handling equipment was a wonderful start.

But, to improve public understanding and support for EV technology throughout the world, we need to continue the momentum and advocate for EVs as the average person’s primary mode of personal transportation. Federal-level policies and initiatives of the Obama administration created the foundation for strong action: tax credits; the DOE’s Clean Cities program and Workplace Charging Challenge; and investment in research and development. Now it is up to us to advocate for those in our communities to adopt EVs to maintain these programs and to draw upon local-level action an important complement to state and federal policies.

Shout-out for the story idea to Yale Climate Connections.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.

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