First published 10 September 2023

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.

Last week, 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. 

But is that the case? 

Chart by TC Insights

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.

And this is the primary problem…

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.

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More problems exist

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.

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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.

That’s not all: 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.

Kenn Abuya

Senior Reporter, TechCabal.

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