The sale of electric cars continues booming globally, having passed the 10 million milestone in 2022. However, the shift to electric vehicles has been called into question regarding the impact of battery production. So, are electric cars really clean, or not?
1. Raw materials
Electric cars, like anything manufactured, require raw materials in order to be produced, and some of these materials come bundled with solemn potential environmental costs. The batteries required to power electric vehicles (EV) tend to consist of lithium cobalt for the cathode and graphite for the anode. A typical EV lithium-ion battery’s electrolyte is also made of lithium salt. Therefore, the need for mining activities to extract the rare earth metals that are used in batteries is effectively very energy consuming and polluting. Electric cars are thus responsible for a share of CO2 emissions during three stages other than being driven: during manufacturing, energy production and at the end of their life cycle.
2. Recycling batteries
In the conventional car industry, according to a study from the International Council of Clean Transportation (ICCT), 99% of lead-acid batteries, those running in fossil fuel powered cars, are recycled in the US. This is not the case for the lithium-ion batteries that have a very specific mix of chemical components and little quantities of lithium, which doesn’t make them an appealing market opportunity. Lithium-ion batteries can be recycled, yet the current practices of Li-ion battery recycling, and related projects are still very much in their infancy. For example, in Australia, only about 2-3% of spent batteries are currently collected and sent offshore for recycling. European and US rates are not that much better, at around 5%, give or take, and the rest was either incinerated or dumped in landfills. To tackle the issue, the European Commission tabled a legislative proposal last December, where it seeks to increase sustainability requirements on carbon footprint, recycled content and performance and durability of batteries. The EU executive expects to recover 50% of lithium by 2027 and 80% by 2031.
Congratulations to @InnoEnergyEU with the launch yesterday of Business Investment Platform #BIP to fund growth of a 🇪🇺 lithium value chain. Here #SAV #Lithium BD Director with EU Vice President Maroš Šefčovič#SAV – Electric Mobility Metals for Europe pic.twitter.com/Yc8o48Cj4S— Savannah Resources (@SavannahRes) September 26, 2019
All industrial players in Europe will now have a clear, predictable legal environment that supports them in innovating and preparing for the expected surge in e-mobility in coming years.Maroš Šefčovič, Vice-President for Interinstitutional Relations and Foresight
3. Lower emissions
Another issue with EVs is the way in which the electricity used to charge its batteries is generated. While leaps and bounds have been made in adding renewable technologies to many countries’ energy mix, many are still heavily reliant on carbon-based power stations. Nonetheless, taking into account the whole lifecycle of electric cars, the science seems to agree that, at the end, electric cars are less polluting, even though they are not zero emissions vehicles. As the decarbonization of energy generation progresses further, the emissions gap between battery electric cars and cars with combustion engines is expected to widen substantially for cars registered in 2030.
https://t.co/ELLqxiqXms— MIT Climate (@ClimateMIT) August 16, 2021
“Electric vehicles (EVs) can contribute significantly to reducing global carbon emissions at a manageable cost,” says @MITGlobalChange and @mitenergy Senior Research Scientist Sergey Paltsev, lead author of an @MIT study on EVs.
“We shouldn’t claim victory that with this switch to electric cars, problem solved, we are going to have zero emissions,” said Sergey Paltsev, Deputy Director of the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change. “No, that’s not the case. But electric cars are actually much, much better in terms of the impact on the climate in comparison to internal combustion vehicles. And in time, that comparative advantage of electric cars is going to grow,” he added.
4. Make EVs “greener”
Several challenges remain to guarantee the real sustainability of EVs. Analysts suggest the radical idea of dropping the use of Li-ion batteries altogether and replace them with salt-based batteries, which are currently under development. Other examples include titanium-nitride batteries, using graphene or even recovered and reused nuclear fuel. While all these alternatives are still far from delivering, another potential solution is to make Li-ion batteries more long-lasting and also try to find lithium sources in places that care about the protection of the environment.