Electric vehicles may not impact the earth directly like petrol- and diesel-powered cars, but there are concerns that emissions from its manufacture negate that positive aspect.
One of the simplest solutions to reducing car emissions is just reducing the number of cars on the roads, though that may be easier said than done. The demand for cars has never been higher, especially in emerging markets, and the appetite doesn’t seem to be waning. The focus on emissions has put a spotlight on the car industry, where major players are always thinking of ways to improve their models’ green credentials.
Electric vehicles (EVs) seem to be an ideal solution to fight climate change — since they are touted as having zero emission, they should be harmless to the earth. And with cars contributing an ever-increasing proportion of CO2 emission from the transportation sector (which includes air and sea transport), EVs would seem the way to go. However, sceptics argue that, while that may be true on the surface, what you don’t see also matters.
While no greenhouse gas is emitted from EVs directly, they do run on electricity, which is largely produced from fossil fuels in many parts of the world. The amount of emissions associated with EV battery production is also uncertain, with varying numbers from studies conducted around the world. What is certain is that, as battery prices fall and more vehicle manufacturers include larger-capacity batteries to increase their EVs’ driving range, battery production emissions may outweigh the positive impact to the climate that driving an EV brings.
The production of electric batteries requires lithium, cobalt and manganese. A large amount of energy is expended on mining and processing these raw materials, as well as the manufacture and assembly of the batteries. The total amount of carbon released — a large chunk of which is due to the manufacture of the battery itself — to produce an EV could rival the emission from the manufacture of a combustion engine vehicle. This means that the source of electricity powering an EV is important in determining how eco-friendly it actually is. This also brings into focus the charging network, which uses electricity as well, that is employed by countries to keep EVs running.
Many charging infrastructures around the world rely on power plants that produce electricity by burning coal or gas. That means that emissions saved from driving EVs are more than nullified by CO2 emissions from these power plants. There are countries that do generate electricity from greener means, such as hydroelectric power. In fact, more and more, countries are moving towards renewable electricity generation; Iceland, Paraguay, Norway and Brazil are entirely, or close to entirely, powered by renewable electricity. As this transition progresses worldwide, the carbon footprint of EVs is expected to be further reduced. This will eventually result in widening the carbon cost superiority EVs have over combustion vehicles.
For drivers, choosing an EV now may be seen as the right choice to address the climate crisis. And if more drivers choose EVs, the energy demand switches from the transport sector to the electricity sector, enabling countries to tackle carbon costs. So for all the current arguments against the EV’s green credentials, the future of EVs may actually be brighter than some may think.