an electric car sits parked and plugged in charging

Are Electric Vehicles Really Green?

Electric cars were invented as an alternative to traditional fossil-fueled cars. Great for climate change, right? 

No doubt, climate change is a threat to every life on the planet, particularly human life. From the IPCC through NASA, or be it the CDP, or the WWF, each of these significant organizations agree on the consequences of this phenomenon and are committed to doing what they can to change it.

In response, the demand for electric vehicles has been increasing and seems to be a sure fire way to make climate change a discussion of the past, as cars account for 72 percent of CO2 emissions in this industry. But are these specialized vehicles really environmentally friendly?

Whether electric vehicles are green or not is debatable. These cars’ CO2 emissions would spike if they don’t get their electricity from wind turbines, solar panels, or even nuclear or hydroelectric plants. If the energy used to charge electric vehicles comes from the combustion of fossil fuels, it doesn’t matter if the cars don’t pollute while driving because the waste has already been emitted at a remote power station.

Traditional Cars vs EVs

a row of electric car chargers sit in a row in front of empty parking spots

It’s impossible to ignore the elephant in the room (the room being planet earth), from the melting of arctic ice and rising sea levels to the uproar of natural temperance like storms, droughts, hurricanes, and intense heat waves. 

Scientists have been investigating what could be the primary drivers of climate change in an effort to mitigate these effects. They discovered that greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, as well as aerosols, are altering the atmosphere’s temperature and behavior. 

The method of converting potential energy into kinetic energy is the basic difference between traditional combustible thermal engine cars and electric cars. This energy is retained in a chemical form in thermal cars and emitted by a chemical reaction within the engine.

Electric vehicles (EVs), on the other hand, despite having chemically stored electricity, unleash energy electrochemically without igniting it due to lithium-ion batteries. This makes for no gasoline being used and therefore no CO2 is released into the atmosphere when the car is running.

What Are Electric Car Batteries Made Of?

electric car lithium ion battery sits on surface

The process of creating any car begins with the extraction, refinement, transportation, and manufacturing of raw materials into various parts that will be assembled to create the car itself. Both traditional and electric cars go through the same operation. Despite following similar paths from design to completion, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, electric vehicles produce more carbon dioxide by the end of the production period.

Electrically powered cars store energy in massive batteries; the larger the battery, the farther the driver can travel before the battery must be recharged. But the batteries themselves have a high environmental cost. This is due to the fact that these batteries are composed of rare earth elements (REE) such as lithium, cobalt, nickel, or graphite, which are only found under the Earth’s surface and thus depend on polluting mining operations. As a result, the question of whether electric vehicles are green or not isn’t so simple.

Not the Greenest… Mining for Batteries

aerial view of the rockwood lithium mine

Although rare is in the name, evidence suggests that we need not be concerned about the abundance of these rare earth elements. In the case of lithium, according to the Deutsche Bank, data suggests that there are sufficient global deposits for the upcoming century, even if the demand for electric vehicles increases.

Cobalt, graphite, and nickel, on the other hand, seem to be in a good spot, as production is predicted to remain well above the reserves available on Earth in the coming years.

While it seems that all will be well in terms of supply, we must not overlook the negative environmental effects of REE extraction.

The rare earth elements used to make batteries for Electric Vehicles, such as lithium, are extracted from below our planets surface – in other words, mined. As per the Chinese Society of Rare Earths, producing 1 ton of REE (rare earth elements) requires 75 tons of acid waste (which isn’t really treated properly) and 1 ton of radioactive residues.

The energy required to manufacture the batteries also accounts for approximately half of their environmental effects because the majority of this energy is not derived from low-carbon sources. Nonetheless, projections suggest that power generation is improving and more renewable energies are joining the grid, which will help reduce the environmental impact of the batteries’ construction.

Considering their initial footprint, the effect of lithium-ion batteries is compensated within 1.5 years of average travel (using renewable energy) in the US, or 2 years in the EU, as opposed to traditional vehicles. From this point on, electric cars will continue to be a more environmentally friendly alternative to traditional vehicles until their battery reaches the end of its life cycle.

What comes next, though? When lithium-ion batteries are no longer useful for electric vehicles, how are they going to be handled? Are they recycled in an environmental-friendly manner?

Are Electric Vehicle Batteries Recyclable?

tip of a battery pokes out of soil

According to an ICCT (International Council of Clean Transportation) study, almost 100 percent of lead-acid batteries (the ones used in fueled cars) are recycled in the traditional automotive industry in the United States. Lithium-ion batteries, on the other hand, have a very complex combination of chemical ingredients and very small amounts of lithium, making commercial recycling an unappealing prospect.

This does not make EVs any greener. Nonetheless, as the demand for electric vehicles grows, the more interesting it becomes to find out how to recycle or recapture REEs. As a result, there’s a good possibility that a robust battery recycling market will continue to grow, helping electric cars to become more environmental-friendly.

Meanwhile, because these batteries could also store energy from solar or wind electricity sources, another alternative may be to reuse them and give them a second life as part of the grid that powers buildings.

Since the environmental effects of manufacturing the batteries are amortized over a prolonged period of time, which will also further mitigate the environmental impacts of making the batteries in the first place.

Are Electric Cars Sustainable Living Friendly?

electric car charging port sits outside

Electric vehicles are not completely emission-free cars. While they do not emit CO2 when being powered, CO2 emissions area a factor during their manufacture and generation of energy stored in their batteries.

For instance, mining operations to remove rare earth metals used in batteries consume a lot of electricity and pollute the environment.

When it comes to electricity generation, if the engine is powered by fossil-fuel-derived energy, it is still leaking CO2 into the air, albeit from a remote power plant rather than the tailpipe.

Where it comes to battery recycling, this is still a costly and newly evolving operation, with the majority of EV batteries not yet recycled.

Despite this, technologies are being built to make electric vehicles greener, more eco-friendly, and long-lasting.

The Future of Electric Vehicles and Our Environment

green electric bus next to curb

Though there is still space for progress, it is widely agreed that electric cars, in their current state, are still more environmentally sustainable than traditional fossil fuel cars throughout their lives, especially if they are powered by clean electricity.

Some countries are also aware of this, which is why they are promoting the development of the electric vehicle industry, mostly through tax incentives that make electric vehicles more economically viable. In reality, some countries are growing their investments in green energy while also setting timelines for the phase-out of traditional vehicles on their highways.

However, are EVs the solution to our mobility sustainability dilemma? We’re racing against time to avert a permanent temperature rise and other the negative effects of climate change. Is, though, avoiding the worst the same as hoping for the best? We do have enough REE for a while, but do we have enough for the long haul?

According to UN estimates, around seventy percent of the world’s population will reside in cities by 2050, necessitating the management of problems such as parking, traffic, and high automobile usage rates.

If we want to reduce carbon emissions, public transportation is indeed a safer choice than private cars, so shouldn’t we be more concerned with reinventing it? Simultaneously, some scientists believe that the sharing economy of vehicles, or even motorcycles or bicycles, would be the next step in the evolution of transportation, with new business models already in development. Let’s welcome the transition, shall we?


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