By Sushobhan Mahanty
Around the world, governments and automakers are promoting electric vehicles as a key
technology to curb oil use and fight climate change. While experts broadly agree that electric
vehicles are a more climate-friendly option than traditional vehicles, they can still have their
own environmental impacts, depending on how they’re charged up and manufactured.
Are electric cars and vehicles greener?
If the source of energy to power these cars don’t come from solar panels, wind turbines or
even nuclear or hydroelectric, their CO2 emissions will be much higher. For instance, if the
electricity used to charge cars comes from the burning of fossil fuels, it doesn’t matter if the
EVs are not polluting while being driven, as this pollution was already released in some
distant power plant.
Like many other batteries, the lithium-ion cells that power most electric vehicles rely on raw
materials, like cobalt, lithium, and rare earth elements, that have been linked to grave
environmental and human rights concerns. Cobalt has been especially problematic. Mining
cobalt produces hazardous tailings and slags that can leach into the environment, and studies
have found high exposure in nearby communities, especially among children, to cobalt and
other metals. Extracting the metals from their ores also requires a process called smelting,
which can emit sulfur oxide and other harmful air pollution. The water required for producing
batteries has meant that manufacturing electric vehicles is about 50% more water-intensive
than traditional internal combustion engines.
Another aspect to consider is that EVs are not very economically viable and a majority of
such vehicles currently plying the roads lack appeal, as far as consumer interest is concerned.
The current battery technology available in the market is largely responsible for this
exorbitant cost if we draw a parallel with conventional cars. It is important to note that
batteries contribute to half the cost of an electricity-powered car. Even though, over the years,
the cost of batteries has plummeted significantly, it is still very expensive. Battery
manufacturers across the world are struggling with negative operating margins and a dearth
of adequate cash flow.
Manufacturers need to work with these mines to lessen their environmental footprint and
make sure miners are working in safe conditions. If companies acted responsibly, the rise of
electric vehicles would be a great opportunity. Adequate progress in battery technology can
lower the costs of EVs by 30% to 40%, as per a report by Goldman Sachs. Even then,
increased adoption can only be witnessed if adequate subsidies and purchase incentives are
extended to consumers.
Nevertheless, the more batteries that are out there, since the electric cars market is growing,
the more interesting it gets to try to figure out how to recycle them or recapture rare earth
elements. So, the chances are that a strong recycling industry for these batteries will keep
developing and allowing electric cars to become greener.
Meanwhile, another solution might have to do with reusing these batteries and giving them a
second life since they are able to support the electric grid of buildings and to store energy
from wind or solar electricity sources.
No, electric cars are not zero emissions vehicles. We have seen that although they do not emit
CO2 while being driven, they might do it in 3 other stages: during manufacturing, energy
production, and at the end of their life cycle. In the first case, the need for mining activities to
extract the rare earth metals that are used in batteries is very energy-consuming and polluting.
As for energy production, if the car is being powered with energy from burning fossil fuels, it
is still releasing CO2 in the atmosphere, not from the tailpipe but from some distant power
plant. When it comes to batteries being recycled, it is still an expensive and ongoing process
and most batteries are not being recycled yet.
In spite of this, solutions to make electric cars greener and more eco-friendly, and sustainable
are being developed. And although there is room for improvement, we have also seen that
electric cars, as they are today, are already, in general, more eco-friendly along their lifecycle
than conventional fossil fuel cars, especially if they are powered with clean electricity. Some
countries are already realizing this and that’s why they are fostering the growth of the electric
cars market, mostly by giving fiscal benefits that make the cars economically more
competitive. In fact, countries like Norway, Germany, or Costa Rica are simultaneously
increasing their bet on renewable energies and setting deadlines for the end of conventional
cars on their roads.
But in the end, are electric vehicles the solution for our sustainability problem on mobility?
We are running to avoid the 2°C temperature increase and prevent the bad consequences of
climate change from happening. But is preventing the bad the same as planning for the best?
About the author : Sushobhan Mahanty is pursuing electrical engineering. Having a keen
interest in sustainability, he is currently exploring various sustainable fields like renewables
and electric vehicles, etc and is running a newsletter on Linkedin, “Sustainability Vibes”.