The Real Carbon Footprint of Electric Vehicles
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From the past few years, different nations and international organizations have been consistently making efforts to draw the attention of the masses towards sustainable development and eco-friendly approaches through various initiatives to minimize the use of conventional climate-damaging practices. Among the many challenges associated with such an endeavour, one that has grabbed global attention is the pollution caused by automobiles. After numerous innovations and changes in the traditional manufacturing methodologies used in the vehicle industry, all eyes are now focussed upon a particular segment in the automobiles that mostly run on Lithium-ion batteries: Electric Vehicles. Believed to be the greener alternative to traditional carbon-emitting vehicles that run on fossil fuels, electric vehicles (EVs) have emerged as a lucrative alternative for those who can afford them.
We have been witnessing the increasing inclination of global communities towards the electric vehicle industry. A large segment of the global community has a belief that EVs are going to play a major role in solving the climate crisis, and as such, EVs should be adapted on a much larger scale as compared to conventional diesel and petrol run vehicles. And rightfully so. In 2016, global CO2 emissions (including land use) were 36.7 billion tonnes CO2; emissions from transport were 7.9 billion tonnes CO2. Transport therefore accounted for 7.9 / 36.7 = 21% of global emissions. In 2018, the number was 24%. Therefore it is pertinent to replace existing transport options with greener alternatives. But few questions remain unanswered: Is the attention granted to EVs really justifiable? Is EV the only best solution we have? And is the EV industry (in its current state) truly eco-friendly and sustainable?
What Are Electric Vehicles?
Electric vehicles, also called e-vehicles or simply EVs, are fully or partially run by electricity. Unlike the conventional automobiles that run over fossil fuels like diesel, petrol which creates pollution, EVs are run with the help of electric motors that function by getting electric power from cells and batteries. These batteries are rechargeable and can be charged by connecting EVs to dedicated charging stations or other electricity sources.
According to a report cited by Statista, there are an estimated 8.5M EV units currently in use globally, and the number is expected to rise up to a fleet of 115M by 2030. Although the market penetration of these green vehicles is still comparatively low, it has been significantly growing since the last decade because of the various innovations by different market players, incentives, and tax relaxations provided by governments to promote the use of these environment-friendly electric vehicles in their territories.
EVs are run on rechargeable batteries, most commonly by Lithium-ion batteries. These Lithium-ion batteries have varied uses in the manufacturing sector, from portable electronic devices like cell phones to electric vehicles. Because of these large scale applications of Li-ion rechargeable batteries, 2019’s Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to a trio of scientists, Goodenough, Whittingham and Akira Yoshino, for their contributions to the development of Li-ion batteries. These batteries consist of anode, cathode, electrolyte and separator made up of various elements and their mixtures thereof. Although electric vehicles are believed to be a boon to the environment, manufacturing of these rechargeable Lithium batteries — the most important part of EVs — has hazardous environmental implications.
These industry-standard batteries are composed of comparatively rare metals like lithium, nickel and cobalt in small amounts. The metals need to be mined and extracted out from their sources. Lithium is extracted in the form of its ore which is Lithium carbonate — present in lithium-salt containing mineral-rich brine water pools. Lithium mining is a serious environment degrading process. The lithium carbonate extraction, commonly called lithium mining operations, is believed to be harmful because the chemicals used in the process seep into the ground and deteriorate the soil and nearby water bodies, which negatively impact the surrounding ecosystem and habitats. These severely eco-impacting activities are intentionally ignored to satisfy the disparate economies to procure more lithium ores and manufacture vehicles and other products. Similarly, cobalt and nickel are also found beneath the earth, and their extraction results in the leakage of chemical byproducts into the concerned environment.
Environmental Impact of EVs
These toxic mining activities of metal extraction to produce batteries to be used in the manufacturing of “green” vehicles do a lot of harm to the environment. In an article for the guardian, Hans-Werner Sinn wrote, “Electric vehicles also emit substantial amounts of CO2, the only difference being that the exhaust is released at a remove – that is, at the power plant. As long as coal- or gas-fired power plants are needed to ensure energy supply during the “dark doldrums” when the wind is not blowing, and the sun is not shining, EVs, like ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) vehicles, run partly on hydrocarbons. And even when they are charged with solar- or wind-generated energy, enormous amounts of fossil fuels are used to produce EV batteries in China and elsewhere, offsetting the supposed emissions reduction.”
After their full life span, ranging from 10-15 years and depending on their charge cycles — when these batteries’ life comes to an end — only about 5% of the total batteries get recycled, and the rest are just dumped into the landfills. These batteries contain highly corrosive chemicals and metals, dumping of which results in the leaching of chemical fluids into the surroundings, causing sudden chemical fires. The low recycling percentage of these batteries is because of it being a comparatively difficult process that requires highly advanced technology to efficiently recycle these batteries containing highly toxic, reactive and flammable metal constituents. Furthermore, low and volatile lithium prices and lower collection rates make the primary production of batteries more profitable and cheaper for manufacturers than reusing batteries after recycling them. So, they tend to avoid the recycling mechanism, and it results in discarding most of these batteries into dumping grounds to pile up the already sky-touching scrap heaps. If we are concerned about the macro and long-term impact of EVs on the environment, industry practices pertaining to the manufacturing process of the batteries cannot be ignored as they form a major component in the evaluation of the opportunity cost.
After receiving the Nobel Prize award for his contribution to creating Li-ion batteries, Japanese Chemist Akira Yoshino admitted that the future of electric vehicles globally depends much on recycled batteries, saying that the industry is not prepared yet. He also added that recycled batteries are the viable key to meeting the surge in demand for electric vehicles and fulfilling its core mission of being a ‘green’ alternative. Yoshino’s worlds clearly emphasize the importance of the battery recycling process in order for EVs to be a greener alternative to ICE vehicles.
The primary goal of adapting green electric vehicles is to reduce the dependency on automobiles that use internal combustible engines — which are major pollution contributors. This shift seems to be appropriate, keeping in mind the negative consequences of these combustible engines on the environment. Let us analyze the relative difference between ICE vehicles and EVs to form an opinion about the same. However, it is important to understand that there’s no simple answer as comparisons between electric vehicles and conventional vehicles are complex. Their environmental impact depends on many factors, including the size of the vehicles, the accuracy of the fuel-economy estimates used, how electricity emissions are calculated, and the source of the power used in the production of EVs and for charging them.
A Comparative Analysis Between ICE Vehicles and EVs
According to the European Parliament report, producing a 24kWh lithium-ion battery accounts for around 33–44% of the total 10-tonne greenhouse gas emissions burden of manufacturing an EV. Throughout its entire life, including manufacture, electricity for running – the report assumes a life cycle that includes driving 93,206 miles (150,000km), maintenance and end-of-life treatment — it’s estimated that an EV will be responsible for just over 20 tonnes of greenhouse gases.
By comparison, the total life emissions of an equivalent new petrol vehicle doing 59mpg over the same mileage will be 27.5 tonnes. Some 20 tonnes of that total are accounted for in the burning and transport of fossil fuels – by comparison, an electric car is estimated to ’emit’ eight tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions over the same distance.
|High as frequent maintenance is required
|Lower over the long term
|Overall lifetime cost
|Easy availability of fuel refilling station
|Scarcity of recharging points
|Less refueling time(< 5min)
|Long Charging Time(0.5Hr – 6Hrs)
|Fuel Price Volatility
|Highly volatile and depends on international oil price
|Emit smoke & greenhouse gases
|No combustion while operating but the manufacturing of batteries harms the environment. Electricity production used for charging involves the coal industry which potentially pollutes the environment.
|Less efficient (~30%)
|275 grams of CO2 per mile
|200 grams of CO2 per mile
|Easily available, Car showrooms everywhere
|Developing Market, Not easily available everywhere
|Higher(price of fossil fuels is high)
|Lower(charging costs are less)
After going through different aspects, we have found out that major issues with electric vehicles are the Lithium batteries and the required electricity infrastructure. The direct and indirect emissions involved here somehow negate the expected positive outcomes.
What’s the Alternative?
Now, to tackle the challenges that arise due to excessive production and usage of Li-batteries, more technologically advanced and efficient infrastructure needs to be developed so as to improve the proportion of batteries recycled to those being dumped in landfills. Industrial-scale cutting edge mechanical and hydrometallurgical technologies should be adopted by the respective industries as it helps in the recovery of about 95% of the metals present in Li-on batteries, including most parts of the scarce metals such as lithium, manganese, nickel and cobalt. The metals recovered could be used to make new batteries, which would help reduce manufacturing costs and can directly affect the overall cost of electric vehicles and their carbon emissions.
Furthermore, the green automobile industry can also explore other battery alternatives. Li-ion batteries can be substituted with Zinc-ion batteries, which are comparatively cleaner assets. Zinc batteries are safer than their Li-ion counterparts as water is used as an electrolyte in these batteries. Additionally, a metallic coating over these batteries substantially increases their lifetime and stability. Zinc batteries are cheaper as well as safer. The only limitation of Zinc batteries is their poor life-cycle, which can be resolved by using a low concentration of KOH as an electrolyte.
Some other potential alternatives are hydrogen fuel cell-based electric cars, aluminium graphite batteries, aluminium-air batteries and graphene supercapacitors. Most of these batteries are used at a small scale, so it requires industrial expansion and government intervention to facilitate their use.
Electric vehicles run on electric power and therefore need to be charged at regular intervals. At first glance, it seems normal, but it is not so. With each passing day, demand for EVs is increasing in the market, so the electricity requirement is also rising. In most parts of the world, electricity is generated by fossil fuels. So, more electricity consumption implies more fossil fuel consumption. This adverse impact of EV over natural resources contrasts with the sole purpose they are introduced for. As such, the benefits of switching to EVs can only be truly realized if the global community switches to alternative modes of electricity production, such as solar, wind and geothermal energy. Electricity, especially at the stations, should be generated by renewable resources to make this whole mechanism related to electric vehicles’ net green’.
Our analysis of the EV industry and related practices presents a slightly different perspective than what is perpetuated in the mainstream. A majority of people are led to believe that electric vehicles are entirely green instruments to protect the environment from the damages caused by ICE vehicles. It is quite understandable why the hype is actually being created globally to opt for electric vehicles. The world definitely needs to move beyond cars running on fossil fuels. However, without actually knowing how much greener EVs actually are, we risk succumbing to a false narrative and forgetting to explore the room for improvisation. It is pertinent that the stakeholders don’t fall prey to information asymmetry and are well informed about the carbon footprints of existing EVs, including their manufacturing practices, materials used, efficiency, and generated output. Another important point to consider is the price of EVs which makes them nigh inaccessible to a majority of the people in the world, due to record economic inequality.
After a comprehensive analysis, we can not deny the fact that EVs are better or even maybe the best current available alternatives compared to conventional ICE vehicles. It is because the opportunity cost to the environment is lower for EVs than those of the internal combustion engine vehicles. They proportionally as well as significantly reduce the CO2 emission into the environment and have diversified long term positive implications. At the same time, consumers should be informed about possibilities of improvement and the opportunity costs that do exist.
The manufacturing process of EVs, the different metals used and their extraction, the impact of batteries on the environment, and the use of fossil fuel consumption to generate the electricity required for charging EVs are major concerns that need to be considered carefully. Even if EVs are not directly causing carbon emissions, electricity used by EVs in charging is produced at power plants where fossil fuel is burnt, contributing to significant carbon emissions.
It is evident that the positives of EVs clearly outcompete the associated limitations of ICE vehicles. The EV industry is already grooming exponentially and is believed to continue at the trajectory for years to come. Undoubtedly, EVs are going to be the future of the automobile industry, and we are already observing glimpses of what is to come. Therefore, it is important that market players work upon eliminating the limitations associated with the EVs in their current form.