Are Electric Cars Actually ‘Green’?

Your future self will most likely drive an EV. EVs are all the rage as countries and governments see the EV route as the sure-fire way to reduce carbon emissions and to reach their ‘climate goals’.

Of course, petrol- and diesel-powered cars (internal Combustion Engines, ICE for short) are detrimental to air quality in cities and phasing them out for battery powered engines will certainly decrease air- and noise pollution from traffic and those living in cities and close to motorways will breathe a sigh of relief. EVs also have fewer emissions per mile travelled than ICE engines do – assuming they are fired up by clean energy (not always the case). So, job done?

But, apart from their ‘cool’ factor, are EVs the carbon reducers we want them to be or are their carbon emissions and environmental destruction just appearing somewhere else, out of sight, far away?

Making EV Batteries. The big raw material squeeze

Making batteries for electric cars requires a lot of natural resources, some of which are quite rare, like cobalt. The current, most used EV battery is made of lithium-ion, rare earth and a mix of cobalt, manganese, and nickel. Most of the raw materials needed for batteries are mined in just a few places globally, most of which are – with the exception of Australia and China – emerging markets. The rarest raw material for the EV battery must be cobalt, 60% of which is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a country torn by armed conflict. Cobalt mining has led to grave environmental degradation in the DRC and precious little is done about it.

So how does the manufacturing of EV batteries affect the environment?

Obviously, fossil fuels have created immense environmental destruction, to the extent that we want to phase them out. But hailing EVs and their batteries as the new way of the better and greener world is perhaps a bit ‘off’. First of all because lithium mining – lithium being the battery ‘base’ - is a murky business, which requires intense water usage, approximately 500,000 gallons per tonne of lithium to be precise, meaning that manufacturing electric vehicles is about 50 percent more water intensive than traditional internal combustion engines.

Lithium mining has led to severe water shortages in Chile and Bolivia, where mining activities consume 65% of the region’s water. That is having a big impact on local farmers in an area where some communities already have to get water driven in from elsewhere, because local groundwater supplies have run out. Lithium mining also leaks toxic chemicals into the water supply, which kills fish and animals and with them the livelihood of many local communities.

Lastly, deposits of rare earths (needed for the neomagnets in EVs), which are almost entirely concentrated in China, often contain radioactive substances that can emit radioactive water and dust.

The conclusion is that a ‘clean’ EV battery is actually filled with ‘dirty’ ingredients that are most definitely not ‘green’ and not ‘friendly’ to humans, animals and eco-systems. So if emissions are not reduced in the battery manufacturing process, the charging of these batteries must surely be clean?

What about the clean energy charging the EV battery?

Are you seeing more and more EV charging points appearing everywhere or people having long leads plugged from the inside of their houses or garages to charge their electric car? Have you ever wondered where this energy is coming from and if it is indeed ‘clean’? Ironically, most EV charging points are still powered by local grids, which in turn rely wholly or partially on fossil fuels (coal plants). Charging your car at home via your local energy supplier, will leave you in limbo whether this is clean or not. Today, most of that is not clean (yet).

So, happy EVer after?

Other than making us feel on trend and content to be doing our thing ‘for the planet’, an EV seems to be a dirty affair. It uses (1) too much water, (2) too many conflicted resources, (3) it is still largely dependent on fossil fuels to power up and (4) its battery – which has a 8 year life span or 100,000 miles (Tesla guarantee) is currently only 5% recycled.

But the words ‘green’ and ‘clean’ are very seductive and used to great effect in the marketing and sales of EVs. And we are falling for it.

All this has certainly worked in the EVs favour. Although what goes into the EV is dirty (fact) and certainly not green, what comes out of it is a sure reduction in CO2 and hence seen as an improvement. But as governments have been wrong before – promoting diesel as a cleaner alternative to petrol about 20 years ago without really understanding the science behind it -, it is important not to fall for the greenwash too quickly.

When you buy your first car, a second-hand petrol car may be just as environmentally friendly as a brand new EV. Clearly more homework needs to be done on how to really reduce CO2 emissions. May we say the jury is out?

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