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Are Electric Cars Doomed To Be Just A Niche Market?

The shift toward electric cars is picking up pace, but the road ahead has plenty of obstacles still.

Electric car charging station in Germany
Electric car charging station in Germany
Jean-Marc Vittori

-OpEd-

PARIS — The car of the future will be electric. That is now a certainty. Or rather a consensus. Unless it's an illusion?

Let's start at the beginning. A symbol of the industrial revolution of the 20th century, the automobile has nonetheless one flaw: it pollutes. And in fact, it has now become the symbol of pollution, even if the one billion cars in use around the world emit less carbon dioxide than agriculture or coal-fired power stations.

Under pressure from voters, governments are imposing ever lower emission ceilings. The movement has grown with the "dieselgate" scandal and the Paris Conference on Climate Change. France and the United Kingdom have announced their intention to ban sales of new petrol and diesel cars by 2040. The City of Paris is banning old diesel vehicles starting next year.

China, the world's largest market, goes further. It turns emission standards into a tool for industrial reconquest. Late on the petrol engine, it will, as early as 2019, impose an electric-car quota on manufacturers, and will increase the quota as it makes progress on batteries.

After a long period of resistance, carmakers are making the switch. "I've changed my mind," the head of a major European company admits. "I'm now convinced that the car of the future will be electric." Renault began 10 years ago. Newcomer Tesla is shaking up the market. Volvo will stop producing models equipped with internal combustion engines in a few months. BMW and Toyota are accelerating.

Hidden costs

Despite this impressive convergence, the electric car will not speed up on the highway of progress. That's because it still has to navigate a lot of tricky chicanes. The first is the battery. The electric car that is imposing itself today runs on the energy stored in huge batteries. And to build those batteries, manufacturers need certain key — and increasingly expensive — metals.

A tourist charges up her electric car in Hangzhou, China Photo: Yin Gang/ZUMA

The price of lithium has tripled in three years and that of cobalt has almost doubled in one year. Available in vast quantities, the former nevertheless poses technical issues. Resources, for instance, are located in desert areas; and yet it takes a lot of water to extract it. The vast majority (two-thirds) of cobalt, for its part, is produced in the highly unstable Democratic Republic of the Congo.

If the sector is equipped to meet current demand (1.2 million rechargeable electric or hybrid cars were sold last year), huge investments will be required to increase supply 10 times, or even 60 or 80 times if we want to electrify all of the production.

The average car will be driverless before it's electric

Cobalt and lithium have two other annoying characteristics. First, their resources are finite. With what is relatively accessible, there is enough to equip the world's car fleet once or twice... but not more. Also, it takes a lot of energy to produce an electric car, just as it does for recycling. According to consultant Jean-Marc Jancovici, an electric car that will drive 200,000 kilometers will have emitted the equivalent of 50 grams of CO2 per kilometer before it even drives the first meter!

Power problems

To reduce CO2 emissions, the energy used to produce the battery itself must be carbon-free. That's no easy task: the first large battery factory in Europe is set to open in Poland, a country where coal is the main source of energy. Hence the second chicane, electricity production.

Charging batteries requires huge quantities of it. Just to give you an order of magnitude: to charge just 1% of the French fleet at night, while motorists are sleeping, it takes the production almost of an entire nuclear unit. Since this is a time of day when the sun no longer hits the panels, and when there's often less wind, it will be necessary to build either new nuclear power plants or... carbon-emitting plants.

If we consider the Chinese energy mix — and calculate "from well to wheel" (with the gas emitted before the energy reaches the car) — a Tesla vehicle emits more CO2 than a good old gasoline car.

The third chicane is the transport of this electricity. Charging stations are only a tiny part of the issue. A fleet of 200 buses to be recharged at night requires the same amount of power as 50 five-story buildings. Unless we want to install wires on pylons in the streets to transport this electricity, we will have to dig trenches, if not install extremely expensive superconducting cables, as was tested in New York.

All these problems have solutions. Progress can be made in lithium or cobalt mining, as seen in shale oil. Researchers are working on other electrodes. Solar energy can be used to raise water levels in dams during the day so that the water can be released and activate turbines at night. Cars can be charged at the office, buses by induction during a brief stop.

Problems could even become solutions. With digital technology, it becomes possible to turn electricity networks into "smart grids." And electric companies could use the electricity contained in batteries to smooth consumption peaks. But all these solutions will require a lot of time, money, and investment.

"The average car will be driverless before it's electric," the director of a major car equipment manufacturer predicts. While we wait for the advent of the other electric car, the one where energy comes from hydrogen, the all-battery car will undoubtedly remain a niche market. Nowhere near the universal solution it embodies today.

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Coronavirus

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."


Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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