Testimony of BTI Director Ashley Nunes

To the United States House of Representatives Subcommittee on Environment, Manufacturing, & Critical Materials

Written Testimony, April 26, 2023

Chairman Johnson, Ranking Member Tonko, and Honorable Members of the Committee,

Thank you for the opportunity to submit a written statement to the House Energy Subcommittee on Environment, Manufacturing, & Critical Materials. My name is Ashley Nunes. I am a Senior Research Associate at Harvard Law School and the Director for Federal Policy, Climate and Energy, at the Breakthrough Institute. The institute is a global research center that identifies and promotes technological solutions to environmental and human development challenges. We believe that human prosperity is compatible with an ecologically vibrant planet, and we are committed to a world that is good for both people and nature.

My work at Breakthrough focuses on analyzing the cost effectiveness of emissions reduction initiatives, particularly in the transportation sector. The U.S. transportation sector is responsible for more greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than any other sector of our economy, accounting for about 27 percent of total U.S. GHG emissions. Moreover, total emissions from the transportation sector have steadily increased since the late 1990s despite significant government spending on programs that promote emissions reductions. This mismatch between intent and outcome highlights the need for Congressional scrutiny and action.

I will focus here on electric vehicles (EVs), an emissions-reduction technology toward which President Joe Biden, his predecessors, and Congress, have committed sizable public funds. My assessment of this technology’s emissions-reduction potential is based on my own work in this area, alongside that of prominent climate analysts, technologists, and social scientists who have been widely cited in the relevant scholarly literatures.

In my testimony, I would like to make four key points:

  • First, just because technologies like EVs can lower emissions doesn’t mean that they will. While existing discourse highlights grid decarbonization as crucial to EV success, Breakthrough’s analysis shows that how EVs are driven, by whom, and under what conditions, also significantly influences how many miles an EV must be driven to deliver an emissions advantage over its fossil fuel counterparts. Absent a change in existing government policy, EV adoption may not meaningfully decrease transportation sector emissions given consumption patterns in American households.
  • Second, EV adoption faces challenging cost barriers. EVs today are more expensive to purchase up front than Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) powered vehicles. However, this price disadvantage doesn’t fully capture the state of the EV market. In 2011, the inflation adjusted price of a new EV was near $44,000. By 2022, that price had risen to over $66,000. EV prices aren’t just going up; they are rising faster than inflation and, as Breakthrough’s analysis suggests, faster than ICE vehicle prices. Should government implicitly mandate EV adoption, an approach recently adopted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), it would risk making existing inequities in new vehicle ownership worse while also encouraging some households to drive older, more polluting ICE vehicles they currently own for longer than they ordinarily would, potentially hindering emissions reductions efforts.
  • Third, the path to clean energy requires wide-ranging specialty raw materials for which the United States currently relies on foreign states. Some of these states—Australia, Canada, and Norway to name a few—are long standing U.S. partners that share our values, interests, and preferences. But that is not the case for all the countries that control, as a manner of extraction or processing, a significant share of minerals value chains. Although the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) aims to consolidate U.S. production and processing capability, these measures may take years to fully bear fruit. In the meantime, production capacity limits coupled with limited alternatives in lithium-ion battery chemistry suggest that EV costs will remain high for American consumers.
  • Fourth and finally, there is reason to be optimistic. Although the pathway towards emissions reduction is fraught with challenges, these challenges are not—in Breakthrough’s view—insurmountable. America can build better, cleaner, and less mineral-intensive vehicles that consumers want to buy and are, regardless of socioeconomic status, able to afford. Government has a critical role to play in supporting that effort, and given the seriousness of climate change, should do so. That will mean implementing policies that have been carefully deliberated and, being amendable to changing these policies when there is incongruence between the policy intent and observed outcome.

Click here to read the full statement