Are Electric Vehicles Really More Sustainable Than Traditional Vehicles?

While we still may be quite a while off The Jetsons idea of future vehicles, we have made exciting headway in the renewable vehicle space. And no, I’m not just talking about Tesla’s camping mode.

 

Electric vehicles (EVs) have grown exponentially, particularly in the past few years, thanks in part to the Paris Agreement targets set in 2015, to limit global warming to a preferred 1.5 degrees Celsius. Many countries have in response already adopted end-dates to the sale of new diesel and petrol vehicles; Norway for 2025 and the UK for 2030. 

However, is the future of the automotive industry really electric? Is it really the most sustainable option in comparison to our fuel guzzling, traditional counterparts? There have been a number of arguments and misconceptions surrounding EVs and I hope that this article will make this murky topic a little clearer. 

When talking about sustainability in the EV realm, some glaring problems include; mining, recycling, and the greater carbon footprint. Touted as a green energy solution, EVs must solve these problems, or they may well be considered the fad that critics allege. Firstly though, what exactly is an EV and what would be considered one? 

An EV is a vehicle that is either partially or exclusively run on electricity. The way electricity is provided depends on the type. The more popular and famous types are ones that run on lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries and are powered through a charger, most notably Tesla.

The other type, lesser known, and more expensive, hydrogen power; in which a bowser is used to pump either a liquid or gas form of hydrogen to charge the vehicle. For this article, we will be focusing on the ‘Tesla’ style of vehicle, wherein a Li-ion battery is used. 

In 2021, around 6.75 million EVs were sold across the world, with a 108% increase to that of 2020. EVs are growing. However, so are problems regarding its sustainability. There are a number of factors that play into these problems. First, the industry is at the mercy of their respective governments; without their full support they significantly hinder the advancement of the industry.

Second, the industry is heavily technology-based; a problem with that is, technology moves faster than we as humans do. We play catch-up; consequently in most cases we are reactive rather than proactive.

Third, materials. EVs are not immune to the glaring problem that fossil fuel manufacturers face – material shortages and toxicity.  

 

Mining

Batteries are integral to an EV. As mentioned earlier, Li-ion batteries are used for most EVs. Even if you’ve never owned or been in an EV, you have most definitely used devices that are powered by Li-ion. Li-ion batteries have been used for smartphones, laptops, and other portable gadgets.

A big problem with Li-ion batteries is that they are extremely difficult to recycle and the hard rock mining (the predominant method) that needs to be undertaken to extract Lithium in order to manufacture these batteries is doing a massive disservice to the environment. 

To make Li-ion batteries you need lithium. Lithium is a finite resource; however, there is an estimated 30 – 90 million tonnes of lithium on earth, and despite the fact that it is tricky to predict when it will run out, it’s estimated to run out by the mid-century. So although it will run-out eventually, for now we have some time. Putting viability aside, the big issue with lithium is with its extraction and their devastating environmental effects.

Lithium mining has profound effects on the environment; biodiversity loss, soil contamination, toxic waste and water loss. But, these are the same problems faced by petrol vehicle manufacturers – this is not solely an EV problem. Comparisons also cannot be drawn between the two given their extremely different mining processes.

Lithium mining is a problem; however, there are more sustainable options that are being explored. Recycling is being considered, with a wealth of gadgets and even older EV batteries that have been recycled in years past; they still contain amounts of lithium that can be reused.

The only issue is cost, at the moment mining is cheaper than recycling but with governing bodies like The European Commission proposing strict battery-recycling requirements, this could result in a downward trend in prices. Similar to what happened with the cost of lithium when its mining gained traction. 

In addition, other methods of low impact mining, such as the extraction of lithium from geothermal waters, could be another alternative. In geothermal mining, there are 0 CO2 emissions per tonne of lithium emitted compared to the 15,000kg that is produced from hard rock mining. We could well move into a ‘green lithium’ era and have zero-emission manufactured batteries. Areas where geothermal mining is possible include; Germany, England, and the USA.

 

Recycling

Li-ion batteries are toxic and flammable, which presents a big issue when it comes to the recycling process. Current estimates suggest that Li-ion batteries in EVs have an expected life span of 10 to 20 years. Which will vary greatly depending on how you treat your battery.

Even actions like using a supercharger can decrease the longevity of a Li-ion battery. Critics argue that their short life spans makes them a non viable solution, and also defeats the purpose of their carbon neutrality, with an estimated 12.85 million tonnes of lithium EV batteries to be dumped over the next decade. 

This is a massive issue that is thankfully being remedied by recycling plants being built, unfortunately at a slow pace. With EVs estimated to make up 58% of global passenger vehicles by 2040, if action is not taken now, we could be in some trouble. Therefore, recycling is a very necessary part of the product life-cycle and it plays a massive role in achieving carbon neutrality for EVs. 

Redwood Materials, founded by one of Tesla’s co-founders, JB Straubel is trying to tackle the problem now. The recycling process employed by Redwood has been able to recycle lithium-ion products, extracting the lithium (that in most cases is still viable) and selling it back to Panasonic, Tesla’s supplier of batteries.

If expanded worldwide, an EV battery’s lifespan could become a closed loop system. Recycling also provides more benefits compared to mining wherein less water and energy is used. In addition, from a cost perspective, the expansion of battery recycling could see material costs lowered significantly. 

Batteries are the most expensive part of an EV and being able to lower that cost in the supply chain would make it a more viable option for consumers in the future. Especially as currently, mining is cheaper than recycling. However, this could change with government support. With just under $3 billion funding being promised by US President Biden’s administration for lithium-ion manufacturing and recycling, this could well make this a reality.

 

Carbon Footprint

From a carbon footprint perspective, EVs emit significantly less emissions than their fuel counterparts. There are arguments about the manufacturing and sourcing (mining) stage, which are granted EVs biggest contributors to CO2. But unlike the current popular car model we have now (internal combustion engine), EVs do not have an exhaust pipe and therefore, do not directly produce emissions.

With a typical passenger vehicle exhaust pipe emitting 4.7 metric tonnes of CO2 a year and the car’s lifespan lasting on average, 12 years – that’s quite a sizable amount of emissions produced. This is not even accounting for the amount used in the manufacturing of the vehicle. EVs on the other hand? Zero greenhouse emissions are directly produced. However, that is not to say EVs are completely immune to producing emissions, which brings me to the topic of charging. 

You have probably been at a rest stop or have been to a car park that has EV chargers. Just like a phone charger, but on a much larger scale, they ‘plug’ into the vehicle and charge away.  While there is nothing inherently wrong with the charger itself, the problem lies with their charging source i.e., electricity, and more so how that electricity is produced.

Sustainability wholly depends on what is fuelling the grid in which it’s attached to. With more countries adopting decarbonisation targets, electricity sources will eventually be predominantly, if not exclusively, renewable. 

In addition, looking at distance longevity, fossil fuel vehicles have an average lifespan of  200,000 miles (321,868km) whereas electric vehicles have the potential average longevity of 300,000 miles (482,803km). Tesla has even reported that one of their own vehicles reached 400,000 miles (643,737km). In saying that, it’s important to note that the battery for that particular vehicle was replaced twice in that time. However, what this shows is that EVs last longer, and when a more sustainable approach to batteries is developed – we could have a vehicle that produces no carbon footprint and is also long-lasting.

 

While EVs do have their own issues – they are certainly not at the level of internal combustion vehicles with regards to CO2 emissions. EVs last longer and they emit less direct and in-direct emissions compared to their fossil fuel counterparts.

Although the topic of mining is still an issue and the comparison between oil and lithium mining is not really possible – the viability and lifespan of their respective cars speak for themselves from an emissions point of view. 

As with any new technologies and innovations, there are going to be hiccups. The automotive industry also had their own hiccups in their infancy and was awarded subsidies – and still are. The backing of their governments was what brought internal combustion engine vehicles to the mainstream market. EVs are slowly but surely coming to take their place.

The speed at which it occurs, however, wholly depends on government and community support. Our world cannot sustain what it has done in the last 100+ years with regards to CO2 emissions from the automotive industry. Some critics argue that we should wait and only switch when EVs are ‘ready’ (zero emissions produced) but that’s frankly impossible. 

EVs are already proving to be formidable forces in the automotive industry. They are showing signs of good sustainability compared to internal combustion engine vehicles. The emissions of CO2, while not as good as it can be in the supply chain aspect – innovations and new techniques are being developed and employed to reach zero emission targets. In addition, their emissions throughout the vehicle’s lifespan are favourable compared to their internal combustion engine counterparts.

EVs are the answer to meeting global climate targets. They are not stagnant or on a downward turn, and their potential to grow and evolve emphasises the fact that they are an enduring force that will become the new normal for the world. 

The future is electric. It’s only a question of when. 

 

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About the Author:

With a Master in Coaching Psychology & HR, Andrea's utilises her skills to match top talent with businesses making a difference.
Read more about Andrea Sanz Rodriguez.

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