The number of electric vehicles in operation is constantly increasing. Many people think that this can be a green solution for the environment. But are electric cars really “green” as we think?
The number of electric vehicles on the road is increasing and continuously reaching record numbers.
This seems to be good news as the world is trying to get rid of polluting fossil fuels. But as electric vehicles explode, the question arises, how eco-friendly are they?
For example, electric vehicle batteries are charged directly from the grid. Meanwhile, electricity is produced by fossil fuel energy. Some other questions arise such as how expensive it is to build an electric car or electric vehicle battery compared to building a traditional car.
Are electric cars “greener”?
The short answer is “yes”. But the green potential will need a few more years to fully develop.
Experts agree that electric vehicles have a lower carbon footprint over their lifespan than cars and trucks with traditional internal combustion engines.
In 2020, researchers from the universities of Cambridge, Exeter and Nijmegen in the Netherlands found that in 95% of the world’s population, driving an electric car is better for the environment than a petrol car.
Most of the world’s electricity grid is still powered by fossil fuels such as coal or oil. Electric vehicles depend on that energy to charge their batteries. Meanwhile, the production of electric vehicle batteries is still an energy-intensive process.
Research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) shows that the production of batteries and fuels produces higher emissions than the production of cars. But the higher environmental costs are offset by the superior energy efficiency of electric vehicles over time.
In short, the total emissions of battery-powered cars are lower than comparable gasoline-powered cars. Sergey Paltsev, a senior research scientist at MIT, says electric cars are still better, even with the current grid.
Paltsev explains that the full benefits of electric vehicles will be realized after the electricity sources are derived from renewable energy. This could be decades away.
Decarbonization is the process of cutting greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels. Efforts to cut greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels across a variety of industries are expected to reduce the environmental impact of electric vehicle battery production and charging over time.
Eric Hannon, a partner at McKinsey & Company, said that over the remainder of the decade, the vast amount of carbon being decarbonised in power generation and the industrial sector will be an opportunity for electric vehicles to benefit.
Batteries are the biggest emitter
Electric vehicles run on rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. Experts say the production process of these batteries consumes a lot of energy. The use of mining raw materials such as cobalt and lithium to production in super factories and transportation are the biggest sources of carbon emissions from electric vehicles.
“Producing electric vehicles leads to significantly more emissions than producing petrol cars. Depending on the country of production, that’s between 30% to 40% extra in production emissions, which is mostly from the battery production,” said Florian Knobloch, a fellow at the Cambridge Centre for Environment, Energy and Natural Resource Governance.
China currently dominates the battery manufacturing industry, with 93 super factories producing lithium-ion batteries in 2021 compared to four in the US.
George Crabtree, director of the US Department of Energy’s Center for Energy Storage Research, says electric vehicle batteries are the most complex component and have the most troublesome supply chain. He added that the source of energy used in battery production makes a big difference in carbon emissions for electric vehicles.
Experts also point out the issues to consider around the production of electric vehicle batteries. These include unethical, environmentally unsustainable mining as well as the complex geopolitical nature of supply chains.
Recycling and decarbonizing the grid
Today, very few used batteries are recycled. Experts say this could change over time. When supplies of raw materials for battery production are limited, companies have no choice but to recycle.
McKinsey’s Hannon also offers other reasons for companies to work towards recycling. For example, the regulatory environment forces companies to dispose of used batteries.
Knobloch from the University of Cambridge says a lot of research is being done to improve battery technology, making them more environmentally sustainable and less dependent on scarce raw materials. He further noted that more effort is needed in decarbonizing the grid.
However, generating electricity with renewable energy sources still emits greenhouse gases.
Emissions come from the production of solar panels and wind turbines. Knobloch said researchers need to look at how long it will take for the grid to decarbonize enough for users to see the benefits of electric vehicles.
Experts agree that switching from gasoline cars to electric cars is not a “panacea” for the fight against global climate change.
This change needs to go hand in hand with social change to promote the use of public transport and alternative modes of transportation such as cycling or walking. Reducing private vehicle use requires a lot of funding and policymaking.
MIT’s Paltsev explains that there are about 1.2 billion gasoline-powered cars globally. This number will increase to 1.8 to 2 billion in the future. Meanwhile, only 10 million electric vehicles are currently in operation.
The electric vehicle boom is real, but the road won’t be easy. Paltsev says people underestimate the number of new cars being produced and the amount of raw materials required to make those electric cars.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts that the number of electric cars, buses and trucks in operation is expected to reach 145 million vehicles by 2030.
According to Knobloch, even if everyone were to drive electric cars instead of petrol cars, there would still be a lot of emissions generated from EVs due to their sheer mass.
As such, electric vehicles are not the perfect solution for mitigating climate change, he concludes. According to him, it is important to reduce the number of vehicles and try to use public transport.