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How ‘green’ are electric vehicles?

  • by JW

“Making a new car creates as much carbon pollution as driving it, so it’s often better to keep your old banger on the road than to upgrade to a greener model.” [Mike Mike Berners-Lee, a leading expert in carbon footprinting]

“But if you must buy a car, the bottom line is that EVs still cause less environmental damage than petrol or diesel engine cars when you measure their emissions over their lifetime.” [Michael Day, i-news]

It’s a problem everywhere: not enough chargers for EVs! Hybrid cars drive strong start for UK electric vehicle industry but chargers stall future progress

Another ‘problem’ in many countries is that the car industry is producing fewer petrol-powered vehicles – but they are producing more electric-powered vehicles: UK car production sinks to lowest level since the 50s

There’s one ‘problem’ which is being discussed more and more – and that’s “How green are EVs?”

These pages have looked at the issues before: Electric cars are not carbon neutral – Vision Group for Sidmouth and The promise of zero-carbon vehicles – Vision Group for Sidmouth and Understanding the sustainability of electric cars – Vision Group for Sidmouth

Reports have been coming out looking at the latest evidence:

T&E’s study assesses the amount of raw materials needed to make electric vehicle batteries today and in the future – taking into account changes in manufacturing processes and recycling. It compares this with the raw materials needed to run a fossil fuel car to show that electric car batteries need significantly less raw materials. The report also shows that on a systemic level Europe’s overreliance on oil imports far outweighs those of battery raw materials, helping Europe to become self-sufficient in batteries. Batteries vs oil: A comparison of raw material needs – Transport & Environment and Fossil fuel cars make ‘hundreds of times’ more waste than electric cars | Automotive industry | The Guardian 

We show that already under current carbon intensities of electricity generation, electric cars and heat pumps are less emission intensive than fossil-fuel-based alternatives in 53 world regions, representing 95% of the global transport and heating demand. Even if future end-use electrification is not matched by rapid power-sector decarbonization, it will probably reduce emissions in almost all world regions. Net emission reductions from electric cars and heat pumps in 59 world regions over time | Nature Sustainability and Electric cars produce less CO2 than petrol vehicles, study confirms | Electric, hybrid and low-emission cars | The Guardian

Here’s an excellent piece from this week looking at the issues from Michael Day of the i-news – with a few excerpts:

They’re tall – they have to be, to fit the battery under the floor. The batteries are very heavy – and very costly, which means EVs are expensive. To justify the price tags, manufacturers have tended to promote them as high-end vehicles, with more power than they need and lashings of luxury tech and trim. These no-emissions vehicles are not yet transportation for the masses... Newer EVs such as Citroen’s ultra-compact Ami, with its battery size just a 10th of most current electric cars, hint at a more utilitarian future, and mass EV ownership – which is surely good news when it comes to reducing emissions globally. But navigating the road to a car-driving greener planet is not that simple…

Demand for the key ingredient in today’s car batteries, the alkali metal lithium, is already sky-high. The world could face shortages of the metal by 2025, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). But the process of collecting lithium brings its own challenges. This mineral resource is concentrated in a handful of places; lithium mining is water-intensive, but more than half of today’s production is in areas where water is scarce. And it needs to be dug out of the ground. The energy for this is usually derived from – guess what? Burning fossil fuels. The electricity grid that charges EVs’ batteries is still largely reliant on fossil fuels, too. Until these fuels are replaced by renewables, EVs will be responsible for harmful emissions.

But if you must buy a car, the bottom line is that EVs still cause less environmental damage than petrol or diesel engine cars when you measure their emissions over their lifetime…

Mark Dummett, Amnesty International’s head of business and human rights, warns us not to believe everything we read about the dark side of EV production. “In the US, in particular, the fossil fuel lobby has been aggressively attacking the EV industry over its environmental record and whipping up anti-China rhetoric,” he says. One US lobbying group, the Heartland Institute, which has received almost $800,000 from oil major ExxonMobil, according to the oil giant’s corporate donation disclosures, published an article last year saying “EV buyers should be aware that they may be contributing to the pursuit of “blood minerals” to achieve their efforts to go green. The article fails to mention our ongoing climate disaster and the epochal levels of pollution-related illness and premature death caused by the fossil fuel industry. “Our message is that the shift to EVs is part of an essential move away from fossil fuels,” says Mr Dummet. Nonetheless, he says battery and EV manufacturers must do better: “There has been too much damage to the environment and human rights, and manufacturers have got to put in place more responsible business practices…

There are two key problems that flashy EVs can’t resolve, no matter how clean and green they are. Our cities don’t have room for them. And many people can’t afford them; EV use is not equitable. According to Phineas Harper, director of Open City, a charity dedicated to making cities more open, accessible and fair: “We’re living in a fantasy world if we think EVs are the answer to our traffic and pollution problems. If we are serious about improving health, safety and liveability in our cities then then all car use has go down.”

Matthew Carmona, a professor of planning and urban design at UCL, concedes that EVs do help reduce pollution locally. This is a huge benefit for people in towns and cities being slowly poisoned by nitrous oxides and particulates in exhaust fumes (although EVs do produce some particulates from brakes and tyres). He thinks that further technological advances might allow more car-sharing, or even self-driving vehicles. “But if we really want to be more sustainable,” he says, “we will have to live lives that are more local and ones that rely more on public transport.” He says this will inevitably require more road closures. “If you open more roads, then people buy more cars and that leads to more traffic.”

If the 20th century was the age of the combustion engine vehicle, the 21st will be the era of the EV. But don’t expect to be able to drive when or where you want it. The car – even in electric guise, and particularly in urban environments – will no longer be king.

Why your electric car may not be as green as you think, from batteries to production

Ultimately, though, it’s perhaps better not to bother buying new:

“Making a new car creates as much carbon pollution as driving it, so it’s often better to keep your old banger on the road than to upgrade to a greener model.” [Mike Mike Berners-Lee, a leading expert in carbon footprinting, director and principal consultant at Small World Consulting and author of How Bad are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything.]

Measuring carbon footprints: old bangers vs new electric cars – Vision Group for Sidmouth and What’s the carbon footprint of a gas field, an electric car, a football stadium? – Vision Group for Sidmouth