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China vs the West: the rise of electric vehicles on the geopolitical stage

As China leads the global stage on green vehicles, the West risks falling behind as a result of tariffs.

The Chinese government has invested heavily into research and development of lithium-ion batteries and electric vehicles since the turn of the millennium. Huge government subsidies and tax breaks into the development of these technologies, as well as a stronghold over the crucial raw materials required for their production, has made the production of electric vehicles relatively cheap and profitable for China-based companies. Further incentives for consumers have made EVs an increasingly attractive and affordable option — 22% of all cars sold in China in 2022 were fully electric, accounting for 59% of all EVs sold globally. Following the success of EVs domestically, Chinese companies are now looking to expand to the European market, where fully electric vehicles are often seen as a middle-class luxury.

The arrival of cheap Chinese cars has alarmed manufacturers and politicians across Europe, with the EU launching an anti-subsidy investigation which is set to decide on whether tariffs above the standard 10% rate for cars should be imposed. If tariffs are imposed by the EU, the UK may follow suit.

The UK is set to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2035, so an influx of cheap electric vehicles will help to decarbonise the transport sector and force competitors to lower their prices to make EVs affordable for the general population. Applying tariffs to new imports would make EVs unaffordable for many and could delay the government’s climate goals. The main advantage of fully electric vehicles is the reduction of air and noise pollution. A European Environment Agency report concluded that greenhouse gas emissions of EVs are between 17% and 30% lower than petrol or diesel cars with the current energy mix of the EU, and will be even lower once more energy is produced by cleaner sources. Reducing air pollution in cities would increase air quality and reduce rates of respiratory issues caused by petrol and diesel cars. Noise pollution is a major problem in the UK, with 40% of the British population affected by unhealthy levels of noise pollution from road traffic. This can cause a variety of issues such as heart disease, high blood pressure and various developmental issues in children. More EVs on the roads would be a big step in tackling these problems.

However, there are various concerns arising from importing large amounts of cheap foreign cars, as well as trade with China itself. The British automotive industry employs around 780,000 people and contributes around £14bn to the economy. If British manufacturers cannot compete with their cheaper rivals, the industry will decline in economic output and thousands of workers would lose their jobs, which could lead to an increase in poverty and crime and reduce tax revenue for the government. Tariffs could be used to protect jobs and allow manufacturers to catch up with their Chinese counterparts. Moreover, there are concerns about trade with China due to a variety of issues, including their close ties with Russia, allegations of forced labour in Xinjiang and allegations of espionage. These high-profile events have further strained relations with the West and caused some politicians and organisations to argue that China is a threat to democracy

Although electric cars are a step in the right direction, they still pose significant socio-environmental impacts that should be considered. The mining of lithium and cobalt, used in the batteries that power electric vehicles, is especially problematic. The extraction of lithium is extremely water intensive — around 2.2 million litres of water is required to produce 1 tonne of the metal. Mining activities in the Salar de Atacama salt flat, one of the largest lithium mines in the world, have consumed 65% of the region’s water which has reduced the amount of water available to local farmers and forced some communities to obtain water from other sources. Lithium and cobalt mining both pollute local water supplies with toxic chemicals and heavy metals, which have been linked with an increase of a myriad of health issues such as cancer. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, by far the world’s largest producer of cobalt, mining has been the source of various human rights abuses. Entire communities have been forcefully evicted from their homes, often through violent means, to make way for mining projects. Working conditions are extremely dangerous as cobalt is toxic to touch and breathe and many mines are completely unregulated which results in as many as 2000 deaths per year, many of those being children. It is clear that the ‘green revolution’ in the Global North is coming at a massive environmental and human cost to the Global South.

Ultimately, electric cars are not the only way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other methods to reduce emissions in cities must also be implemented alongside them, regardless of whether tariffs are imposed. Pedestrian-friendly urban planning and investment in public transport are desperately needed if the UK is serious about reaching its climate goals.

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