Are electric cars the key to fighting climate change? Are they really that eco-friendly? And are they what we need for sustainable transportation?
In the quest to meeting global goals on climate change, electric vehicles have been a recurring feature in mitigation pathways that cap warming to 2C.
To minimize the consequences of global warming, scientists have established that greenhouse gases, i.e., carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane, and aerosols, are responsible for our changing atmosphere.
It’s also established that combustion engine cars make up 72% of emissions in the transportation sector and 14% of total global emissions.
So, are electric cars better for the environment?
Now, an electric car uses its chemically stored energy without any combustion thanks to its lithium-ion battery. Because no fuel is burned, there’s no air pollution happening through the release of CO2 when driving.
This simplistic look at an electric car seems like a clear win by the EV over traditional vehicles. But’s it’s more complicated than that.
Building an electric vehicle generates several tons of greenhouse gases. The manufacturer has to smelt aluminum and find the raw materials needed for the lithium-ion battery. The batteries are made from rare earth metals like lithium, cobalt, nickel, and graphite.
These metals are extracted through polluting activities. It is estimated that manufacturing one electric car generates 12.3 tons of emissions.
But once the electric car hits the road, the electric vehicle refills by plugging in, and it does not need oil changes. For every mile driven, an electric vehicle generates 34% of the emissions generated by an ICE car. By the time an EV travels 36,000 miles, the emissions by an electric vehicle are significantly lower than a gas car, depending on where it charges.
For example, electric vehicles in the US have more lifetime emissions than those in Iceland since a high percentage of electricity in the US is generated by burning fossil fuels. Unlike in Iceland, where electricity is by natural and renewable resources like hydro, solar, and geothermal energy.
ICE vs. Electric Car Long-Term Emissions
The consumer value of an electric vehicle and a conventional car is the same ten years after sale. However, it is estimated that the lifetime emissions of a gasoline car are 77% more than the electric vehicle at the 100,000-mile mark. The total cost of owning an electric car is also estimated to be lower than the conventional car.
What About Lithium-Ion Batteries? Where Do They Go?
This is another main concern.
Only 5% of lithium-ion batteries are recycled in the EU market, which is similar worldwide. Compared to 99% of recycling done to lead-acid batteries, the numbers are grim for lithium-ion batteries. The ones not recycled either end up in landfills or are incinerated, generating even more emissions.
However, experts say that as more and more lithium-ion batteries enter the market, the more interesting it will be to recapture the rare earth elements or recycle them.
Scientists are still working on making the electric vehicle greener, and recycling lithium-ion batteries is just one way towards an eco-friendly vehicle.
The answer to – are electric cars better for the environment is not a simple Yes or No.
From what we see looking at the emission numbers of a country, switching from internal combustion engine vehicles to electric vehicles is crucial if we are to meet Paris Agreement’s targets.
Nevertheless, everyone has an obligation to help fight climate change. That’s why we recommend using public transportation if we want to reduce our carbon footprint.
Sam is Automole’s editor-in-chief and classic car enthusiast. Sam is studying mechanical engineering at Cockrell School of Engineering, Austin. He also writes for many top automotive publications and appears on the Collecting Cars Podcast.