Electric Cars Are Not Sustainable

At least not for the time being

Alex Hureau
Dec 6, 2020 · 6 min read
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Photo by Ralph Hutter on Unsplash

Electric vehicles (EV) are all the rage right now. Tesla keeps breaking sales records and making a lot of rich people richer, large car manufacturers are all jumping aboard the (electric) bandwagon, and even motorcycle brands usually known for their loud engines are releasing electric models. Along with this, reduced emissions targets and financial incentives are pushing more and more people to consider electric vehicles. In 2021, we are expected to see EV sales represent up to 15% of all sales in Europe. This transition has a lot of room to grow and happen faster, too. Norway has shown that — the country’s EV sales jumped from 6% of the market in 2013 to nearly 50% in 2018.

Yet, electric vehicles are not without fault, and we’re not talking about their range here. For one, they have to be recharged, and that electricity has to come from somewhere. If you’re in Germany, the US, Australia, or one of the many countries that still use coal as a major source of electricity, you might be looking at coal-powered cars. Then, there’s the issue of sourcing the materials for building the batteries. It’s hard to estimate the exact need for future resources, but EVs could easily consume most, if not all of the world’s lithium and cobalt reserves. Let’s remember we’re trying to switch away from non-renewables. Finally, while EVs may emit fewer greenhouse gases (GHG) when being used, the manufacturing process also accounts for a large part of the total impact of a car on the environment. As it turns out, this can easily make EVs more polluting than vehicles with conventional engines, and we haven’t talked about their end-of-life yet. As with many things, these issues are not black-and-white, and many of the downsides of electric vehicles can be overcome if proper measures are put in place. Let’s have a look at these, shall we?

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Photo by Tobias Tullius on Unsplash

In the world of EVs, the energy source is everything. It may be that you can drive around without directly emitting GHGs, but if you charge your car using energy from a coal power plant 50 km outside of your city, you still contribute to air pollution and climate change — perhaps more so than by driving a conventional vehicle with an internal combustion engine (ICE). A 2018 study found that EVs could easily emit anywhere between 27.5 and 326 grams of CO2 equivalent per kilometre driven (g CO2-eq/km), and that the main reason for this variance was the type of energy used during charging. As a point of comparison, a relatively modern gasoline ICE emits anywhere between 120 and 260 g CO2-eq/km.

So, obviously, governments that currently push for the electrification of their vehicle park should also double-down on the transition to renewable sources of energy. For reference, here are some emission ranges for different energy sources used to produce electricity:

  • Coal: 800 to 1000 g CO2-eq/kWh
  • Natural gas: 360 to 575 g CO2-eq/kWh
  • Nuclear power: 1.5 to 20 g CO2-eq/kWh
  • Solar panels: 43 to 73 g CO2-eq/kWh
  • Windmills: 8 to 30 g CO2-eq/kWh
  • Hydroelectricity: 1 to 34 g CO2-eq/kWh

Even with the range within one type of energy, it’s easy to see that coal and natural gas trail far behind the alternatives. We cannot expect the transition to electric vehicles to bring any benefits if it does not come with a green transition in energy production.

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Photo by Lenny Kuhne on Unsplash

On the topic of energy sources, it turns out that the environmental impact of the manufacturing process is largely dependent on the type of electricity used during production. While some have called for simply moving manufacturing away from residential centers in order to reduce the health impact on the population, this doesn’t help the environment as a whole. Meanwhile, switching battery production to sources of energy with a low-carbon impact has shown to be highly beneficial to the environment. It is the only way to achieve a lesser manufacturing impact than for ICE production.

An example of some success in this area can be found with Tesla. According to their 2019 report, their commitment to using renewable energy for the production of their cars and batteries has already allowed them to reduce the impact of their manufacturing process to be nearly equal to that of a conventional vehicle. Going forward, we need to see other car and battery manufacturers switch to similar methods of production. While the use-phase impact of vehicles is far greater than the manufacturing one, a switch to renewable and low-carbon energy sources benefits the impact of EVs in too many ways to be ignored.

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Photo by Dominik Vanyi on Unsplash

Some will tell you that we have so much lithium, we shouldn’t worry about future reserves. A similar argument was probably heard in England before the Age of Sail, shortly before Britain realized it had cut down almost every tree on the British Isles to build warships. We didn’t even acknowledge the idea of “peak oil”, the point where oil production and discovery can’t keep up with the demand, until relatively recently. Meanwhile, we burn most of the lithium found in car batteries as current processes make them too expensive to properly recycle. Certainly, research is being made into improving our recycling processes, and new chemical processes are showing a lot of promise, but most of these advances are still experimental.

Lithium is not the only material found in batteries that we should be worried about. For instance, EVs could consume up to 50% of current cobalt reserves by the year 2050. There are also rare materials found in other batteries, something worth considering since not all electric cars make use of lithium batteries. For instance, many of the rare earth metals found in nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries are lost during the recycling process. This is despite the fact that it can be extremely hard to find deposits large enough to make extraction economically viable, with roughly 90% of the world’s supply currently coming from a single country: China.

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Photo by Anete Lusina from Pexels

We are at a turning point for EV batteries. Most electric cars that were sold in the past few years are still using their original battery, but as demand continues to grow, and as batteries do have a limited lifespan, the clock is ticking. We need proper recycling of batteries if we want to avoid the mistakes of the past. Besides, proper recycling also helps reduce the overall GHG emissions caused by EVs since you no longer need to extract as much new material.

Electric cars are only going to become more popular going forward. They have a number of undeniable benefits, and governments are happy to push them in order to reach their emissions targets. That being said, we need to push for better manufacturing, better energy generation, and better recycling if we are to reach the full potential of EVs. We need to demand that our governments invest in a proper transition if we want to have a real and positive impact on our planet.

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