Every technology advancement solves one problem here, and creates another there. Such is the law of unintended consequences.
In the wonky world of energy, there are debates around whether EVs do more damage than good. Sometimes as an excuse for inaction, sometimes with genuine and considered intention to understand ‘am I doing the right thing?’.
The concerns fall into three broad categories:
- Are EVs really better for the planet when you include mining and manufacturing large batteries?
- What happens to all those batteries at the end of life? Are masses of chemicals going to end up in landfill?
- Am I better driving my petrol / diesel car into the ground before switching to an EV?
I‘ll tackle each in turn, in three short blog posts.
- When you take into account mining those battery materials, are EVs really better for the environment?
On a greenhouse gas emissions basis, this one is pretty straightforward. There are lots of great studies and articles (here, here and here) on the lifecycle emissions of petrol vs EV cars which come to similar conclusions — in the long term, EV emissions are lower.
On day 1, a brand new EV has higher embodied emissions than a petrol equivalent. However, as soon as you start to drive, the lifecycle emissions of a petrol car will rise, whereas EV emissions remain relatively flat. (Yes — a kWh of grid electricity has some carbon content but almost nowhere in the world does this come close to that of burning petrol or diesel to power an inefficient combustion engine).
After roughly 16,000 miles, a petrol car will produce greater emissions than that of an EV. This breakeven point happens around year 2–4 for a new car. When you consider that most cars are driven for > 15 years then emissions savings over a lifecycle are significant. When you apply that saving to all cars on the road, the emission reduction potential is enormous.
On the subject of mining, modern EV batteries are made up of minerals such cobalt, lithium, nickel and aluminium. Cobalt is particularly concerning as it is a large part of lithium batteries and most of the world’s reserves are found in the DRC. Neighsayers often point to the environmental cost of mining materials that underpin the clean energy transition, neglecting the fact that the alternative is to mine for increasingly unconventional sources of oil and gas. Is this not making perfect the enemy of the good?
Compared with other forms of mining and mineral extraction, EV manufacturers are at least attempting to put in place rules to ensure battery minerals are ethically sourced. And unlike fossil fuels, rare earth metals can be recovered and reused — more on that in the next post.