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Many experts agree that the electrification of the transportation sector will be vital in our efforts to stem climate change. Electric vehicles (EVs) have been around for more than 120 years. But thanks to incredible technological innovation and advances in recent years, the industry has grown at an unprecedented rate. Research and development brought substantial improvement in battery life and lowered overall manufacturing and purchase costs. With more EVs on the road every year, an inevitable question arises: are electric cars better for the environment than gas-powered ones?
Countries Around the World Are Betting on Electric Cars
Several countries have made switching to electric cars a priority in their plans to reach their climate goals. So far, 17 countries have announced 100% zero-emission vehicle targets or to phase-out internal combustion engine vehicles by 2050. The world’s most powerful economies – the US and China – are racing against each other to become leaders in the EV market, with the latter making remarkable progress in expanding the industry. As of 2020, China has sold more than three million passenger EVs, over double the number of the US. China also has over 400 registered brands in the New Energy Vehicle (NEV) industry and over 500,000 electric buses, accounting for a staggering 98% of the global figure. But the future of this sector looks equally promising in the US. Here, electric car sales have climbed by more than 40% a year since 2016 and the number is expected to rise as President Joe Biden’s plan to reach carbon neutrality involves making sure that half of all new vehicle sales in the country will be zero-emission cars. While the government is doing its part by boosting consumer tax credits for purchasing a new EV to USD$12,500 – up from the current USD$7,500 – as well as financing new public charging infrastructure, US states are also taking action by adopting credit programmes and tougher emissions standards. In California, fuel demand for EVs has sparked a race to build 1.2 million chargers by 2030, as the California Energy Commission predicts that by then, there will be approximately 7.5 million EVs on the roads.
For the UK, they have announced a ban on new petrol and diesel cars from sale after 2030 in a bid to reach zero-emissions by 2050. To fuel the transition, the government will invest nearly £12 billion (USD$14 billion), which will be used to accelerate the roll-out of charging points across the country, boost mass production of EV batteries as well as support consumers’ purchases with grants that will allow them to save up to 42%. Similarly, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced the need to boost electric vehicles as part of the city’s 2050 carbon neutrality plan. It is estimated that if every vehicle were electric, Hong Kong’s total carbon footprint would drop to 1.4 million tons from the current 7.4 million tons.
Among the most successful countries in the EV transition is Norway. In 2021, the European nation experienced a mind-blowing boom in sales, where EVs made up nearly 80% of new car sales. The country is also seeking to be the first in the world to end the sale of combustion engines by 2025. While Norway is leading the way, other European countries are catching up. If the market in Europe grows according to market predictions – a staggering 1,697% by 2030 – a recent study by Uswitch that analysed data from the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that the continent could save emissions equivalent to planting one billion trees (or a forest larger than Belgium) as well as reduce sea level by 2.19 millimetres.
Generally speaking, switching to EV undoubtedly represents a good strategy to stop global warming. Indeed, if all cars on the road became electric, we could cut almost one-fifth of global emissions. But the benefits of expanding the electric sector go beyond just this: besides being able to enjoy cleaner air, we would be less dependent on conflict-fuelld spikes in oil prices and we would have quieter cities. But it is not just about cars. There is a silent revolution taking place in the global transport sector, with electrification of bikes, motorbikes, buses, freight trains, tractors, heavy trucks picking up at unprecedented pace. Innovation in the field as well as the drop in clean energy costs – with solar becoming the cheapest form of power we currently have – is driving cheaper manufacturing costs for EV batteries, thus cheaper purchasing prices. While there is no doubt that electric vehicles will be important in the fight against the climate crisis, it is equally important to answer a crucial question: are electric cars truly better for the environment than those with combustion engines?
The Environmental Footprint of EV Batteries
It is known that the initial environmental footprint from current EV production is greater than the production of internal combustion engines, specifically from producing electric car batteries.
Lithium-ion batteries – the most common type of EV batteries – contain two energy-dense raw materials: lithium and cobalt. In order to meet the skyrocketing demand, production capacity has reached record levels, as did mining for these two metals. However, the question is not whether the world has enough lithium. Despite demand expected to rise from approximately half a million metric tons in 2021 to some 3 million metric tons in 2030, experts believe that there is enough product to supply the lithium-ion battery industry. What is far more concerning is the environmental impact of drilling for this metal. Lithium mining is a process known for being extremely detrimental to the environment as well as incredibly resource-intensive, with side effects including water loss and contamination, ground destabilisation, and biodiversity loss.
Figure 1: Global Lithium Demand, 2015-2030
Nearly three-quarters of the world’s lithium is found in the so-called ‘lithium triangle’, an area that spans across Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile. Here, one of the most concerning environmental issues related to the intense mining for lithium extraction is water loss. In the Salar de Uyuni – the world’s largest salt flat and an enormous lithium reserve located in southwest Bolivia – mining is threatening to destroy the ecosystem and drain the water supply. Indeed, extracting just a tonne of lithium requires up to 2 million litres of water. As water sources in the area declines, droughts and desertification become more frequent. Similarly, mining companies operating at the Salar de Atacama Mine in Chile’s desert have so far consumed an estimated 65% of the area’s water. Furthermore, much of the energy used to extract and process lithium comes from fossil fuels and is thus responsible for generating CO2 emissions, nearly 15 tonnes for every tonne of mined lithium. On top of that, depending on the battery’s size, CO2 emissions deriving from the manufacturing process, these range from three to about 16 tons. In contrast, producing one tonne of steel – of which most internal combustion engines are made of – generates 1.9 tonnes of emissions, far less than lithium.
However, as battery technologies continue to improve, costs as well as emissions deriving from the manufacturing of EV batteries are dropping quite significantly. More importantly, emissions generated during production are highly compensated during the electric cars’ lifetime.
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How Much Do Electric Vehicles Emit When On The Road?
Electrifying vehicles offers opportunities for emission savings. This is because, contrary to the manufacturing process, they generate very little emissions over their lifetime, especially when compared to conventional vehicles. Internal combustion (IC) engines operating on fossil fuel oil produce about 10% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Like lithium for batteries, gasoline to power non-electric cars has to be mined. In this case, however, it is the refinement process once the crude oil has been extracted that is responsible for the majority of emissions, which consists only of greenhouse gases but also methane and nitrous dioxide. And while the argument that oil is going to be extracted for other uses regardless of whether we switch to EVs or not is often brought up, it is undeniable that phasing-out gasoline-powered vehicles is going to reduce the demand and consequently the emissions related to this industry.
While tailpipe emissions from electric vehicles are zero, how much these actually pollute depends on where such vehicles get their electricity from. EVs have a large potential for greenhouse gas emissions reductions when coupled with a low-carbon electricity sector. However, in many countries such as the US, power still derives from coal plants. Consequently, driving electric cars in these regions still has a higher impact than driving in areas with clean sources of energy. Yet, as renewables expand at an incredibly fast rate worldwide, concerns over emissions of EVs during their lifetime significantly decrease.
What About Battery End-of-Life Emissions?
One last aspect that has to be considered when trying to understand if electric cars are better for the environment than combustion engine vehicles has to do with EV battery disposal. As the industry grows, so does the number of used batteries. The fact that not enough of them are being recycled or adequately stored have become increasingly problematic.
According to the IEA, the volume of electric vehicle batteries that will be retired by 2030 nearly equals the current annual battery production. In order to prevent this from becoming a significant environmental liability, the industry needs to come up with effective measures to address such volumes. Just 5% of lithium-ion batteries are being recycled, a 2021 data analysis found, which is highly alarming, considering that more than 90% of cobalt and nickel can be easily removed.
Furthermore, some of the metals contained in EV batteries are highly damaging even in small quantities. Since a large majority of them are disposed of in landfills, leaks of environmental contaminants are quite frequent. Often, these leaks lead to underground fires, which consequently releases more pollutants into the atmosphere. When particles of hazardous metals contained in batteries – like arsenic, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, and copper – enter the human respiratory system, they can cause a variety of health problems. Similarly, these toxic metals can contaminate water sources, threatening not only humans but also animal biodiversity.
Given the issues associated with battery end-of-life, some of the world’s key regions are looking at ways to evolve their policy landscape to regulate battery collection and recycling. In 2019, for example, China mandated producer responsibility, holding manufacturers accountable for the disposal and recycling of spent batteries. Similarly, the European Union is working on the Battery Directive that would prohibit the marketing of batteries containing some hazardous substances, regulate collection and recycling as well as set out provisions on labelling of batteries and their removability from equipment. As for the US, the government relies on the Lithium-Ion Car Battery Recycling Advisory Group led by the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) to advise the legislature on EV battery recovery policies.
EO’s Position: The electrification of vehicles is undoubtedly a crucial part of the net-zero equation. While it is good to boost electric cars, in order to make a difference, we will need to electrify the whole transport sector. Yet, to make sure that EVs can be implemented as a strategy to reach carbon neutrality, governments will need to address some of the issues that the sector still has by developing strong mining and battery disposal regulations. Despite the production electric vehicles is still very much in its infancy when compared to gas engines, with the right policies, its role in decarbonisation will become increasingly pivotal.