Over the past decade, an enormous amount of research has been done on the topic of electric vehicles (EVs), including the major social and environmental issues that arise from their production. Despite the confidence expressed in certain British media that car buyers have more choice and better access to information than ever before, some studies show that socio-environmental issues related to EVs are virtually invisible to consumers, highlighting the extremely positive coverage of EVs in English-speaking media.
Gaëlle Cotterlaz-Rannard and Manuel Méndez examined articles from the top 15 UK newspapers between 2017 and 2021 to understand whether academic debates on the issue are being communicated to the general public.
Although electric vehicles have been in use for more than a century, they’ve recently taken on new significance. In the last decade, as our environmental concerns have grown more pressing, they’ve emerged as a key weapon in our fight against climate change – a lifestyle modification that a ‘normal’ person can take to reduce their emissions (though with the caveat that their expense makes them an exclusive product).
Governments and multilateral organisations have invested massive amounts of money in promoting their adoption via tax rebates, purchase subsidies and charging infrastructure, among other mechanisms. This ’electric fever’ has hugely boosted the sales of EVs. Worldwide data shows that, since 2017, the rate of EV registration has doubled annually.
Academia has responded with a vast amount of research on EVs spanning a variety of disciplines: from fundamental research, such as the physics and chemistry of batteries, to behavioral studies on EV buyers. One of the growing concerns of academia has been the identification and study of the different impacts along the global production network (GPN) of EVs: heavy pollution, modern slavery, dispossession of local/indigenous communities, impact on ecosystems, opacity in the traceability of minerals, huge water and carbon footprint, pollutant electricity production, difficulty of reusing/recycling battery components, and so on.
However, as with much scientific knowledge, these findings are not widely known outside of academia. The general public, including potential EV buyers, are only aware of what is shared with them via advertising or media. Considering this, the press plays an important role by sharing information about car-related innovations. Previous studies on media discourses show broadly positive coverage of EVs in which they’re positioned as an environmentally friendly choice with nuanced or no mention of their negative impacts.
Out of balance
Our preliminary findings indicate that most press coverage (50.4% of all coverage) focused on the use of EVs. This related primarily to positive aspects such as low emissions (10.4%), state grants (8.3%), investment in charging points (4.2%) and low-cost maintenance (2.2%), but also to concerns including charging points (9.5%), pricing (4.8%), electricity production (3.7%) and slow charging (1.4%). This means that most press coverage is related to local use of EVs from the perspective of buying them, charging them or driving them – as well as the ‘good’ you are doing by reducing your emissions.
In contrast, only 8% of press coverage was concerned with socio-environmental issues in the production process of these vehicles. Over this 8%, three items receive particular attention: rare earths, cobalt and lithium. An interesting point is that the socio-environmental issues related to cobalt and lithium differ. Whereas for cobalt the communication is mainly linked to social issues, notably human rights (1.7%), for lithium the focus is made on environmental pollution (1.4%).
The overwhelming focus on the consumer/local issues related to EVs overshadows coverage of the socio-environmental issues in the GPN of EVs. This information asymmetry means that consumers, and potentially policymakers, aren’t getting a full picture of the impacts of producing EVs. These findings are consistent with previous studies in the sense that they highlight the unbalanced way in which EVs are communicated in the press.
In this context, we believe that more even-handed communication would help to promote better awareness vis-à-vis the adoption of EVs. At the same time, a well-informed consumer could influence car makers in becoming more responsible regarding their GPN.