Are EVs really accelerating towards a greener future?
Dhruv Agarwal explores whether electric vehicles (EVs) are really as green as advertised and whether their adoption can accelerate global climate agreements.
The production of electric vehicles (EVs) has sped up in many countries across the globe. This is part of an effort to achieve climate goals and fight unsustainable industry practices. For example, General Motors aims to switch completely to EVs by 2035 and Volvo plans to introduce an all-electric lineup by 2030. Despite the general consensus of EVs being greener than their fuel-driven alternatives, the behind-the-scenes picture is quite dark.
What fundamentally separates EVs from fuel powered automobiles is the rechargeable lithium-ion batteries they run on, rather than petrol or diesel. At first glance, driving EVs might seem more environmentally-friendly because of less visible CO2 emissions. However, production of these EVs leads to more emissions than existing options. A study from China has revealed that EV production leads to 60% more CO2 emissions than combustion-based automobiles. This happens even before you turn on the engine of an EV — so what causes this? Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries are where the problem lies.
These batteries require lithium, cobalt, and nickel for manufacturing which usually needs to be smelted or mined, withach metal bringing its own form of damage to the environment. Lithium is mined mainly in Chile and Australia which leads to 5-15 tonnes of CO2 emissions per tonne of lithium. Moreover, Lithium mining operations require large amounts of groundwater which results in 50% more water use than fuel-driven automobiles. The cobalt mining process, which is centered in the Democratic Republic of Congo, results in the leaching of hazardous slags and sulphur dioxide emissions. Emissions from all stages of battery production alone account for more than 1/3 CO2 emissions in the entire production process. Moreover, demand for lithium and cobalt is expected to increase 10 and 5 times respectively over the next 10 years, primarily because global EV sales are expected to increase from 2.1 million to 28.2 million between 2021 and 2030. Green technology to decarbonise these mining processes is still in its infancy, leaving reusing and recycling as the last option on the table
If this has already made the picture grim for you, it’s not the end. The electricity required to run an EV, the greener alternative, is also not as environmentally-friendly as you would think. China, the largest market for EVs, is also the world’s largest coal consumer. Since its electricity grids are predominantly coal-powered, charging an EV in China has the carbon equivalent of burning 2/3 of a tank of gasoline. Similarly, India (which draws 75% of its electricity from coal) and parts of the US, such as Pittsburgh, likewise run on coal.
The good news, however, is that most countries are cleaning up their electricity grids. The EU reduced coal-driven generation by more than 20% and the US by 19% in 2020 while renewable-driven generation (wind, solar, hydro) grew by 5% globally. These figures are likely to grow as we approach 2030-2050. Making the grids carbon-zero would drastically reduce carbon emissions. For example, a current-day EV in the US would emit 200 grams of CO2 per mile and such advances in green regulation could reduce that to 50 grams per mile by 2050.
Besides decarbonising production and the grid, recycling can also lower the carbon footprint of the EV lifecycle. The lithium-ion batteries that EVs use can store more energy than the traditional lead-acid ones, but their recycle rate is only about 5% compared to 99% of the latter. However, as the raw materials for these batteries are limited, there’s no choice but to recycle.
In conclusion, although the entire EV lifecycle from production to full use leads to 17%-30% less emissions than their fuel-driven counterparts, EVs may not lead a straightforward path tto a greener future. Their green potential is far from being realised yet. Currently there are 1.2 billion fuel-driven vehicles and only 10 million EVs. So a complete shift to EVs will require mass production which will cause immense emission levels. To combat climate change, the solution is not a sudden adoption of EVs, but a gradual reduction in fuel-driven vehicles to public transport first.
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