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The Relationship between Electric Vehicles and Climate Change 




When thinking about the relationship between electric vehicles and climate change, most people merely consider how electric vehicles can help (or not) with tackling climate change. There has been debate regarding whether these cars can truly change our trajectory to net zero - see Eirini’s article here. But what about the reciprocal relationship? Does climate change impact the functioning of electric vehicles? Could this influence people’s decision to make the switch to the seemingly more sustainable option of vehicles? 


Recent waves of extreme weather all over the world including the United States, Great Britain, India, China and even Bangladesh. Whilst some of these countries are seeing more severe impacts of climate change than others, it is clear that the world is battling with extreme weather phenomena. With reports of abandoned frozen cars in Chicago, USA, Tesla has been subject to criticism as owners are unable to charge their vehicles. This is caused by the mechanics of the batteries that power electric vehicles. Most of these cars use lithium-ion batteries, which operate through chemical reactions between liquids in the batteries. When the weather is extremely cold, these chemical reactions become considerably slower. This does not only impact the vehicles when driving but also interferes with the charging process, as cars “will greatly slow down their maximum fast charging in very cold weather to prevent battery damage.” This has left drivers unable to charge their cars, or finding themselves waiting much longer than usual to recharge their batteries.


Yet, this is not a problem that electric car owners only face during the winter, as extreme heat also hinders the functioning of electric vehicles. The problem once again arises from the batteries; the chemical reactions that happen too slowly (or not at all) in subzero temperatures can happen too fast in warmer weather conditions, making them far less efficient. Another similar problem arises from the protective layer of the batteries deteriorating when an electric vehicle is parked in the heat for too long.  This causes considerable inconvenience for drivers who do not have access to garages. 


As extreme weather conditions throughout the year are an expected outcome of climate change, auto companies that are seeking to turn electric need to efficiently solve these problems. They will likely have to look inwards into their lithium-ion batteries to do so. This only heightens the pressure these companies are already under, with multiple reports of fires breaking out from lithium-ion batteries in 2023.


This highlights a relationship between climate change and electric vehicles that is often overlooked by commentators. It extends the debate of whether electric vehicles can be revolutionary in tackling climate change and environmental degradation to whether they are adaptable enough in an already-existing environmental crisis. The stories of frozen electric cards and overheated batteries contribute to the chaos that is the EV market at the moment, which is caused by a decrease in demand for EVs in major markets like China. It will be interesting to see whether these technical problems will cause EV demand to plunge even further in countries experiencing extreme weather conditions. 


I predict that whilst potential buyers will certainly think twice if they plan to use their electric car in extreme weather, this is not an issue that is only applicable to EVs. Their unique batteries pose a distinct problem, but cars powered by gasoline also face similar issues with fuel crystallizing in subzero temperatures, making it difficult to turn the car on. I reckon the EV giants such as Tesla and BYD will come up with a solution to these problems, as has been the case with traditional cars and engine-cooling liquids used to prevent the crystallization of gasoline. 


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