Electric cars are clearly at the frontier of next-generation mobility – an image widely curated by Tesla. We have entered the decade where the electric car numbers are set to hit 145 million by the end of 2030, and this is even a modest assumption according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).
After entering commercial markets in the first half of the 2010s, electric car sales have soared (Graph 1). Only about 17 000 electric cars were on the world’s roads in 2010. By 2019, that number had swelled to 7.2 million, hitting 10 million mark in 2021. This counts for 40% year-on-year increase of global car sales.
This is a huge pattern change in global mobility and while the electric vehicle (EV) adopters boast about their neutral carbon footprint, at least in terms of car travel, the shift comes with its fair share of challenges.
Electric car environmental challenges that no one talks about
There is no dispute in the fact that the move away from internal combustion engines is necessary to reach the net zero target in 2050. The UK, for example, has announced plans to stop selling new diesel and petrol (gasoline) cars and vans from 2030. Norway is even more ambitions trying to reach this goal by 2025. While country leaders are rooting for the EV revolution and some countries are even handing out subsidies for the purchase of electric cars, the transition towards seemingly low-and zero-emission vehicle fleet on the streets does come at a cost.
Electric cars may reduce emissions, but the lithium-ion batteries on which they run pose a unique sustainability challenge. It has often been disregarded that a typical electric car requires six times the mineral input of a conventional car (Graph 2). Electric car batteries are partly made from raw materials such as cobalt, lithium and nickel. The mining of these materials can raise ethical and environmental concerns and some of these metals could face a global shortage given potential battery demand.
Li-based batteries built with nickel or cobalt have the highest environmental impact including resource depletion, ecological toxicity, and human health impacts (including the use of child labour), all almost entirely due to the production and processing of nickel and cobalt. A large proportion of the batteries end up in landfills, especially in developing countries, where toxins can cause fires, explosions and poison food and water supplies for generations. Therefore the new lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries provide a heavy contender on the battery market especially in terms of environmental advantage. Since the electrodes of LFP batteries are made of non-toxic materials, they pose far less risk to the environment and are much easily recycled.
A recent report stated that Tesla has secured an order of 45 GWh of LFP cells from CATL, a global leader in battery manufacturing, to move away from using nickel, cobalt and aluminium batteries. Such a quantity would be enough to produce between 700 000 and 800 000 vehicles, depending on the mix of standard range models.
While Tesla aims avoiding named metals in the future battery chemistry, it must accommodate the characteristics that come along with the change. The LFP cells are less energy-dense, which means they offer lower range for the same weight as other cells. Thus, CATL and Tesla are in dire need of additives that not only increase the characteristics like charge rate and energy density, but also provide a sustainable alternative.
Electric cars are not completely green, but they could be
Two issues that are constantly overlooked while rooting for the electric vehicle takeover are battery manufacturing and battery recycling processes – the before and the aftermath of the image where the zero-emission vehicles are taking over the global transport network.
The third point is the proportion of electricity still generated from fossil fuels. Since renewable energy is rapidly entering the energy spectrum (in the EU during year 2020, more power was generated from renewables (38%) than from fossil fuels (37%)) we are not analysing the obvious benefits of renewables to the environment at this point. The urgent need to cut carbon emissions is prompting a rapid move toward electrified mobility and expanded deployment of solar and wind energy on the electric grid.
So we can say that electric vehicles have an environmental advantage over cars with diesel or gasoline engines. This is even when taking into account battery recycling at the end and charging the vehicle over its entire lifetime, but calling the EVs completely green or zero-emission is a clear overstatement.
To really achieve the zero-emission (and why not negative emission) target the goal is to invest in sustainable battery manufacturing and creating a circular or „closed loop“ supply chain by retrieving, recycling and recirculating raw materials that are used in batteries. To fully electrify the global vehicle fleet by 2050, the world will have to find over $4 trillion worth of new battery materials. Once sustainable battery materials are found and extracted, batteries are highly recyclable and a robust circular battery economy can be developed to reuse and recycle batteries. But there is still a long way to go.
So coming back to the question whether electric cars are really better for the environment?
There is no arguing that EVs are responsible for considerably lower emissions over their lifetime than vehicles running on fossil fuels, regardless of the source that generates the electricity. On average, an electric car emits almost three times less CO₂ than an equivalent petrol or diesel car when comparing the lifecycle emissions.
But if we really want to nag on the „zero-emission“ statement then there is a point to consider. If the electricity is generated using fossil-free energy, such as solar or wind power, then your driving will be free of emissions. If you charge your car with electricity that comes from a local power plant powered by fossil fuels, well then, it will not be emission free.
And when we come to the point of an actual production of the electric car including the battery manufacturing there is an interesting fact to bear in mind. While there is no denying that EVs emit less CO₂ while in use, the production process of an average electric car results in 15% more emissions than the production of a gasoline car. The biggest reason for that disparity is an electric vehicle’s battery, which can account for about a quarter of its weight and requires a much larger variety and amount of mineral input to function.
So the actual challenge we must be working on to cover the need of EV batteries in the long run is getting more and more sustainable raw material providers into the energy storage scene to accelerate the transition to a zero carbon future.