As a promoter of electric vehicles (EVs) in both my personal and professional lives, I frequently get asked some version of the following question: “Are EVs actually beneficial from an emissions perspective?” More often than not, the question is framed as an assertion (in the negative) accompanied by a picture of a derelict lithium mine juxtaposed with a photoshopped oil field. I’m not making that last one up, here’s a meme that frequently makes the rounds on our company Facebook page:
So, “are EVs actually beneficial?” Using the narrowest, least contextual interpretation, the answer is no. Before you take that soundbite and close the browser window, let me explain.
If you were to brainstorm for a transportation system that optimized for resource efficiency, personal vehicle ownership might not even crack the top fifty. Our cars sit unused the vast majority of the time. And 95% of the energy put into a car is used to move the car itself rather than its passengers!
We have known how to do all-electric mass urban transportation since at least 1887, when the electric streetcar debuted. Trolley-buses and subways soon followed. But decades of suburban development, underinvestment in public infrastructure, and targeted campaigns by Ford, GM, Chrysler and oil majors gave rise to the supremacy of the automobile. Personal vehicle ownership became as integral a component of American identity as apple pie, July 4th fireworks, and talking loudly in restaurants.
While I’d love to advocate for ditching personal vehicle ownership entirely, it’s just not practical in many parts of this far-flung country of ours. Any plan to overhaul transportation that impinges on convenience or individual freedom is virtually doomed from the start. I’m not saying we shouldn’t push for better bike infrastructure or expanded bus route coverage. Those are important too. But on our tight timeline for rapid change, I believe our only chance to make a dent in transportation emissions is a technology switch rather than a behavioral one. This is certainly the case in Vermont, where somehow there are more registered vehicles than people. And a solid chunk of those people aren’t even old enough to drive!
The best option is not to own a car at all. Plain and simple. But back to my original question, when I hear “Are EVs beneficial?” I make the educated guess that what they really mean is, “Assuming I need to buy a car, are EVs better than gasoline vehicles or any other vehicle alternative?” This time, the short answer is yes.
First, we need to address the giant battery-shaped elephant in the room. It is 100% true that the manufacturing-related emissions of an electric vehicle exceed those of a conventional one. Producing a lithium ion battery pack is an extremely energy-intensive process. Because much of battery manufacturing takes place in countries where grid emissions are high, it means that battery manufacturing is very emission-intensive as well. The most famous study is one by the Swedish Environmental Institute (IVL) with the conclusion that each kWh of battery yields 150–200 kg of CO2. It would be easy to read this study as an argument against EVs, but that entirely ignores the immense emission savings once the car rolls off the lot.
Instead, I interpret the IVL study as an appeal for smaller electric vehicles. For instance, it would actually be better (from an emissions standpoint) to choose an EV that covers 95% of trips and rent a conventional car for road trips than get a longer range EV whose large battery sits underutilized most of the time. Another point: even at the 150–200 kg/kWh number, it doesn’t take very long to “break even.” I calculated that once a typical EV hits 10,000 miles, the total “life cycle” emissions, including manufacturing and driving, will be equal to a comparable gasoline car. After that threshold is crossed, it’s all gravy.
Another issue with battery production has to do with the raw materials. The most common cell chemistry for EV battery packs right now is NMC (nickel-manganese-cobalt), and 60% of the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 5 seconds of Googling you’ll be able to find a hundred stories on unsafe mining conditions. It’s an often overlooked aspect of battery manufacturing, which applies not only to EVs but also almost every consumer electronic device in the world. We must not ignore these troubling facts. And it is not enough to point to the history of oil mining, another industry inextricably linked to environmental hazards, wars, and a host of other negative externalities. But in a time of climate crisis, it is naive to think that we’ll be able to find silver bullet solutions. There will be tradeoffs, and we must not let perfect be the enemy of better. One bright light is that many EV makers have indicated they plan to shift away from cobalt towards different chemistries using abundant materials.
Let me be clear: I don’t think EVs are a panacea. In fact I think it’s incredibly misleading when people use the term “zero emission” to describe them. It’s true that they don’t have a tailpipe, but there are emissions associated with both production and, in many cases, the electricity generated to charge them.
But the bottom line is this: even if they’re not perfect today, EVs are a pathway to zero emissions. The emission savings are already huge, even with today’s electricity fuel mix (scroll down for the map on this page for the MPG-equivalent of an EV across the US). With a clean electric grid, which many states have now mandated for the near future, the savings will be even greater.
On the other hand, internal gasoline combustion engines are doomed by their very nature- they offer no path to zero emissions. If we don’t choose EVs now, then auto makers will not invest money to improve the technology or offer new models. Oil companies will continue to drill new wells and build more pipelines. And utilities will not build out the charging infrastructure we so desperately need to make EVs viable for all types of trips.
If you own a car, choosing an EV is the single most impactful thing you can do to reduce your personal carbon footprint. This is your chance to be a true pioneer for the clean energy future. To signal to Exxon, Shell, and BP that their destructive behavior over the last 50 years is beyond reproach. To ensure that future generations of humans will thrive on this planet. All this for minimal (if any) sacrifice. You’ve already got the fueling infrastructure at your house. It’s called an outlet! This would be like having an oil derrick, fuel refinery, and gas station in your backyard. Oh, and did I mention the IRS will literally pay you to make the switch.