When it comes to lowering your carbon footprint, it seems that nothing is simple. Even something like installing solar panels or using hydrogen for fuel can be more greenwashed than green if you’re not careful. As with most things in life, making the right choice becomes more complicated the closer you examine the issue. Electric vehicles are no exception. While they “seem very attractive at first sight, writes The Next Web in a report published this week, “when we look more closely, it becomes clear that they have a substantial carbon footprint and some downsides in terms of the extraction of lithium, cobalt, and other metals.”
The issue about rare earth metals and costly minerals included as essential ingredients in EV batteries is a multifaceted one. Not only to the ratchet up the price of the car itself, making electric cars less accessible and therefore less widely used, it also causes unique challenges and monopolies along the EV supply chain. China’s near-total domination of the lithium ion batteries market has given Beijing indirect control of the global EV market for years, and has led many companies to move their entire production to Asia. Meanwhile, cobalt is so expensive that its concentration in the EV battery represents a whopping 40 percent of the car’s total value.
And then there’s the fact that these metals are not renewable, and their extraction is often anything but green. “The increasing use of lithium-ion batteries as a major power source in electronic devices, including mobile phones, laptops, and electric cars has contributed to a 58% increase in lithium mining in the past decade worldwide. There seems little near-term risk of lithium being mined out, but there is an environmental downside,” writes The Next Web for The Conversation.
In addition to the often destructive terraforming that mining creates, the mining process, like so many industries, requires huge volumes of water, “which can cause aquifer depletion and adversely affect ecosystems.” These ecosystems are often extremely delicate ones, such as the case in the Atacama Salt Flat, in Chile, the location of the world’s largest lithium extraction site.
So the question is: is it worth it? Just how much emissions can EVs save us and how successful are they as a tool for battling catastrophic climate change? Luckily, someone has done a life cycle assessment for us to try to give us some answers.
“A life cycle analysis of emissions considers three phases,” writes The Next Web. “The manufacturing phase (also known as cradle-to-gate), the use phase (well-to-wheel), and the recycling phase (grave-to-cradle).” But this quickly becomes tricky. The numbers in New Zealand, for example, are going to be wildly different than China. In this sense, it matters hugely where your EV was manufactured, and where the electricity powering your car was produced. For example, “in New Zealand, 82% of energy for electricity generation came from renewable sources in 2017. With these high renewable electricity levels for electric car recharging, compared with say Australia or China, EVs are better suited to New Zealand.” But of course, even that is not so simple. It doesn’t necessarily mean that a Kiwi EV is carbon neutral or non-damaging to the environment. This is why a full life cycle assessment is so helpful.
In the manufacturing phase, the main processes taken into account are “ore mining, material transformation, manufacturing of vehicle components, and vehicle assembly.” The Next Web looks to China for this data, where “emissions for cars with internal combustion engines in this phase to be about 10.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide (tCO?) per car, compared to emissions for an electric car of about 13 tonnes (including the electric car battery manufacturing).” Again, the battery is to blame. “Emissions from the manufacturing of a lithium-nickel-manganese-cobalt-oxide battery alone were estimated to be 3.2 tonnes. If the vehicle life is assumed to be 150,000 kilometers, emissions from the manufacturing phase of an electric car are higher than for fossil-fuelled cars.” But in the end, EVs win. “For complete life cycle emissions, the study shows that EV emissions are 18% lower than fossil-fuelled cars.”
In the use phase, the source of electricity the consumer is using to power their car comes into play in a major way. So there really is no one-size-fits-all answer. “To understand how the emissions of electric cars vary with a country’s renewable electricity share, consider Australia and New Zealand,” continues the report. In 2018, Australia’s share of renewables in electricity generation was about 21% […]. In contrast, the share of renewables in New Zealand’s electricity generation mix was about 84% […]. Electric car upstream emissions (for a battery-electric vehicle) in Australia can be estimated to be about 170g of CO? per km while upstream emissions in New Zealand are estimated at about 25g of CO? per km on average.” As a consumer, your choices are only as good as your options, and your car is only as green as your country’s energy mix.
Finally, in the recycling phase, we look at vehicle dismantling, vehicle recycling, battery recycling, and material recovery. “The estimated emissions in this phase, based on a study in China, are about 1.8 tonnes for a fossil-fuelled car and 2.4 tonnes for an electric car (including battery recycling). This difference is mostly due to the emissions from battery recycling which is 0.7 tonnes.” While electric cars cause more greenhouse gas emissions to recycle than a standard fuel combustion engine, “it’s important to note the recycled vehicle components can be used in the manufacturing of future vehicles, and batteries recycled through direct cathode recycling can be used in subsequent batteries. This could have significant emissions reduction benefits in the future.”
So here’s the takeaway: EVs are greener, across the board and in every phase of the life cycle assessment. But maybe they’re not as green as you thought. There’s certainly room for improvement, and EVs will, in all likelihood, continue to curb their emissions as technologies improve. As we speak Tesla is working on a battery with a million-mile lifespan and no cobalt whatsoever. The real challenge lies in speeding the global energy transition toward greener energy-production. Until then, New Zealand will be outperforming the best of us by 62%.