Electric cars are currently experiencing a major development drive, as governments increasingly look to their low emissions potential as a means of tackling climate change. With the UK government pushing for the ban of new combustion engine cars by 2030 (1), electric cars are likely to become the new normal.
Electric cars, unlike combustion engine cars, run solely on ion batteries, and these batteries make use of various materials. Lithium ions are found in battery cells, where they flow between a positively-charged electrode (anode), generally made from graphite, to a negatively-charged electrode (cathode) typically made from cobalt, manganese and nickel. This positive-to-negative flow generates an electric current, which powers the car’s motor.
As these ion batteries power a fully electric cars’ motor and remove the need for an engine, which burns fossil fuels and produces greenhouse gases, electric cars can drive without producing emissions. It’s therefore easy to see the appeal of EVs in climate policy – nonetheless, challenges remain in the implementation of EVs to help tackle climate change.
Challenges with EVs
One key environmental issue with EV uptake is the many harmful impacts of battery production. Compared to combustion engine car production, EV production produces far greater acidification (from chemical reactions of mine ores with rain and air), as well as over 3 times the concentration of particulates and almost twice as much CO2 (2). Battery materials are also highly toxic, with battery toxicity potential alone roughly equivalent to the toxicity of both the production and use of a combustion engine car (3), which combined with their acidity potential can be ecologically damaging (4). Working conditions for miners are also often poor – cobalt miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the supplier of 60% of unprocessed cobalt, are directly exposed to toxic materials, including 40,000 child miners working in poorly regulated, artisanal operations (4). Graphite mining for anode production, 70% of which occurs in China (5), also produces dust from the use of explosives, which can affect water supplies and crops (6).
Additionally, when combined with the damage caused by production, the use of fossil fuels to charge EVs can increase their environmental impact relative to combustion engine cars. Although efficient charging technologies and the use of renewable energy sources may help tackle this, electrifying car fleets based on current energy sources could produce greater emissions globally, reducing their benefits (7), though it should be noted that many combustion engine cars still produce higher CO2 emissions (8).
In spite of their issues, EVs have great potential in reducing emissions and helping to tackle climate change. There are several ways in which we can overcome these issues, with the principal method being a reduction in the reliance on fossil fuels in charging. One study (8) found that under the EU’s 2030 renewable energy targets, battery EVs could have overall carbon footprints peaking at ~75g of CO2 per km, versus between 125-350g of CO2 per kilometre for combustion engine cars, demonstrating the potential of coupling renewable energy with electric cars.
Reducing reliance on mining could also help to reduce the carbon footprint of EV production. A study of the Chinese EV industry (9) found that recycling could reduce CO2 emissions from production by 21.8%. Increased recycling would reduce the EV industry’s reliance on mining raw materials, and there are signs that this may become a reality, with Renault and Volkswagen having battery recycling initiatives (10, 11).
Another promising technology is the silicon anode – these could enable batteries to carry twice as much charge, in half the number of cells and a third of the weight of conventional batteries (6). These anodes can however swell by up to 280% during use, so further development will be required (12).
Overall, emerging technologies show great potential in reducing the environmental impacts of EV production and operation, securing the promise these vehicles have in helping to tackle climate change. In the meantime, governments must focus on ensuring a smooth transition to renewable energy and better safeguarding of working and living conditions in mining communities.
(1) Government takes historic step towards net-zero with end of sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030 (2020), GOV.UK, available at https://www.gov.uk/government/news/government-takes-historic-step-towards-net-zero-with-end-of-sale-of-new-petrol-and-diesel-cars-by-2030 (date accessed: 08/08/2021)
(2) Del Pero, F., Delogu, M. and Pierini, M. (2018), ‘Life Cycle Assessment in the automotive sector: a comparative case study of Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) and electric car’, Procedia Structural Integrity, 12, pp.521-537
(3) Chłopek, Z. and Lasocki, J. (2013), ‘Comparison of the environmental impact of an electric car and a car with an internal combustion engine in Polish conditions using life cycle assessment method’, Combustion Engines, 154 (3), pp.192-201
(4) Developing countries pay environmental cost of electric car batteries (2020), UNCTAD, available at https://unctad.org/news/developing-countries-pay-environmental-cost-electric-car-batteries (date accessed: 08/08/2021)
(5) Olson, D.W., Virta, R.L., Mahdavi, M., Sangine, E.S. and Fortier, S.M. (2016), ‘Natural graphite demand and supply – Implications for electric vehicle battery requirements’, in Wessel, G.R. and Greenberg, J.K. (eds.), Geoscience for the Public Good and Global Development: Toward a Sustainable Future, Geological Society of America, pp.67-77
(6) Turcheniuk, K., Bondarev, D., Singhal, V. and Yushin, G. (2018), Ten years left to redesign lithium-ion batteries, Nature, available at https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-05752-3#ref-CR1 (date accessed: 08/08/2021)
(7) Rievaj, V. and Synák, F. (2017), ‘Does electric car produce emissions?’, Scientific Journal of Silesian University of Technology, Series Transport, 94, pp.187-197
(8) Helmers, E. and Weiss, M. (2017), ‘Advances and critical aspects in the life-cycle assessment of battery electric cars’, Energy and Emission Control Technologies, 5, pp.1-18
(9) Wang, L., Wang, X. and Yang, W. (2020), ‘Optimal design of electric vehicle battery recycling network – From the perspective of electric vehicle manufacturers’, Applied Energy, 275, 115328
(10) Schottey, N. (2017), Renault optimizes the lifecyle of its electric vehicle batteries, Renault Group, available at https://www.renaultgroup.com/en/news-on-air/news/renault-optimizes-the-lifecycle-of-its-electric-vehicle-batteries/ (date accessed: 09/08/2021)
(11) Lithium to lithium, manganese to manganese (2021), Volkswagen AG, available at https://www.volkswagenag.com/en/news/stories/2019/02/lithium-to-lithium-manganese-to-manganese.html# (date accessed: 09/08/2021)
(12) Martins, L.S., Guimarães, L.F., Botelho Junior, A.B., Tenório, J.A.S. and Espinosa, D.C.R. (2021), ‘Electric car battery: An overview on global demand, recycling and future approaches towards sustainability’, Journal of Environmental Management, 295, 113091