Electric Vehicles, not yet perfect, but better for the environment in the long run

Written by Geraldine Herbert

7 mins read

By 2030, there will be more than 30 million electric vehicles (EVs) on European roads. While EVs produce no tailpipe emissions on the road their manufacturing process, including the production of batteries, still contributes to carbon emissions. How environmentally friendly are Electric Vehicles (EVs), and how do they compare to traditional internal combustion engine (ICE) cars powered by petrol or diesel?

The Manufacturers

Car makers are setting ambitious targets to become carbon neutral and recognise the importance of the circular economy and its potential to address environmental challenges, reduce resource consumption, and create economic value. Ford opened its first official carbon-neutral manufacturing plant in Cologne, Germany last Summer while Volkswagen and Toyota aim to be carbon-neutral by 2050.  All new vehicles from Mercedes-Benz will be net carbon-neutral along the entire value chain by 2039 and General Motors (GM) plans to be carbon-neutral by 2040 in its global products and operations. Stellantis, formed through the merger of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) and PSA Group plans to reach carbon net-zero by 2038. But some car makers have more ambitious plans and Polestar aims to produce a net-zero car by 2030 by identifying and eliminating all carbon emissions, from the extraction of raw materials to production through to end-of-life handling.

The Carbon Gap

Initially, there may be a notable carbon gap between Electric Vehicles (BEVs) and Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) cars at the point of sale. However, throughout their lifespan on the road, ICE cars continue to emit CO2, whereas electric cars produce no emissions apart from particles generated by tyres and brakes.
Research conducted by Transport & Environment (T&E) indicates that on average, an electric car in Europe emits over three times less CO₂ than equivalent petrol cars. Under optimal conditions, where battery production and charging utilize the cleanest electricity grid available, a medium-sized EV can be nearly six times cleaner (-83%). Even in less favorable scenarios, such as when the battery is manufactured in China and the car is charged in Poland, EVs are still 37% cleaner compared to petrol cars. With an average battery, electric cars driven in Germany or Italy are approximately 2.5 times cleaner (-61% and -62%), while those driven in France and Sweden demonstrate emissions reductions exceeding fivefold (-81% and -82%). EVs purchased in 2030 are expected to reap the full benefits of a cleaner electricity grid and are anticipated to be 4.6 times cleaner than petrol cars.

The Batteries

Rare earth material shortages can be addressed as battery technology continues to advance and new alternatives to conventional lithium-ion chemistry are expected to emerge. Exploration of alternative raw materials is underway, with companies like CATL, a prominent Chinese battery manufacturer, developing a new sodium-ion battery. Moreover, BYD, a global leader in electrified vehicles, uses lithium iron phosphate instead of the usual lithium-ion cells in their cobalt-free Blade Battery.
However, much more could be done to improve environmental practices in the mining sector. One avenue for progress involves reinvesting profits into local communities to support education and training initiatives. By providing opportunities that are often inaccessible to people in developing countries, such measures can help mitigate the environmental impact of mining while fostering social and economic development.

One important step to reducing life cycle emissions from electric cars is recycling or reusing the battery. The European Parliament and the Council adopted the new Batteries Regulation on 12 July 2023. This seeks not only to ensure ethical mining techniques but also to reduce demand for mining by more effectively recycling the raw materials and it establishes end-of-life requirements, including collection targets and obligations, targets for the recovery of materials, and extended producer responsibility. These measures are crucial steps toward fostering a circular economy and nurturing the growth of a competitive and sustainable battery industry.

The Lifespan

At the end of their lifespan in  Electric Vehicles (BEVs), batteries might no longer be suitable for vehicle use however, this presents a significant opportunity to re-purpose them for a “second life,” such as electricity storage on the grid. This practice can effectively reduce the overall carbon footprint of battery production.
Shortages of raw materials are driving investment in battery recycling and carmakers are addressing the challenges by establishing partnerships with raw material suppliers and recyclers, for example, Volkswagen and Audi partnered with Redwood Materials in North America and claim to recover more than 95% of the metals like nickel, cobalt, lithium and copper from the batteries and use them to remanufacture components that are supplied back to US battery cell manufacturers.

Electric cars contribute to reducing transport emissions but also create new challenges, particularly in terms of electricity sources, battery production methods, and end-of-life management practices.  Nevertheless, the environmental repercussions of oil extraction for fuel are substantial and overwhelming evidence suggests that throughout their operational lifespans, Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs) emit fewer carbon emissions than Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) cars, making them a more environmentally friendly option. 

Geraldine Herbert is a columnist and motoring editor at the Sunday Independent and Ireland's first female motoring editor of a national newspaper. Geraldine will be bringing some insightful and thought-provoking content to NiftiBusiness throughout 2024.

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