Around the world, Governments are promoting electric vehicles as a key technology in fighting the climate crisis. Yet, as they become more mainstream, they face a persistent question: are electric vehicles better for the environment than their ICE counterparts?

Climate experts, like Laura Young, broadly agree that plug-in vehicles are more environmentally friendly, but that doesn’t mean they don’t still have an environmental impact. In this episode of Electrifying Discussions she explores this question with Grace, Jack and Charlie.

Fjord in Norway.

‘Essentially there’s two sides of the conversation: either we go too far into sustainability and say they have no impact or we go too far the other way and say there is no impact.’ Laura Young.

There are 3 main things to consider:

1. Production of the vehicle

The first factor to examine is the production of the car. Unfortunately, studies are generally consistent in showing that the manufacturing of a typical EV battery can cause more carbon emissions than an ICE vehicle. This is largely due to the creation of their lithium-ion batteries which require fossil fuels to mine and heat them to high temperatures. Then, of course, the car will have a carbon footprint as it gets shipped around the world. 

This may be discouraging to hear, however it’s worth noting that as the technology progresses, the lower the climate impact of production will be. EV battery innovation has already come a long way in the past few years, and we can expect to see major breakthroughs here. For example, scientists are currently working on cobalt free batteries and the use of silicon anodes which would spare the use of precious metals. 

2. The energy used driving the vehicle

Once a car leaves production, this is where it’s environmental benefits really kick in. 

In contrast to ICE vehicles, EVs have no exhaust pipes. This means they do not emit any harmful exhaust fumes which have been proven to have detrimental effects on both the environment, and the health of the population. In fact, it’s been reported that transport is responsible for approximately 20% of global energy-related CO2 emissions. When you consider that just one electric car can save an average of 1.5 million grams of CO2 every year, compared to an ICE vehicle, it’s hardly surprising that they are the greener option. 

Naturally there’s the argument that an electric car is only as green as the energy it uses. However, did you know that zero-carbon sources continue to outperform fossil fuel generation in the UK? What’s more, since electric cars are more energy efficient than ICE vehicles (77% compared to 12-30%), in the event that you have to charge from a non-renewable energy source, you’re not using as much. Overall, an electric vehicle has, on average, around 50% of the climate impact over it’s lifetime compared to an average EU car. As technologies in production and renewable energy continue to improve, this is only going to get better. 

3. The afterlife of the battery

With battery production being so intensive, it’s important to make sure that the entire life cycle of an electric vehicle is properly considered.  Currently, the average lifespan of an electric vehicle is 8-12 years. So what happens when it reaches this point?

Since EV technology is advancing so rapidly, often the most viable use for an older EV battery is as a domestic or commercial energy storage system. These can then be used with renewable sources, such as solar panels. 

Once the capabilities of the battery have been completely depleted, the final option should be to recycle them. Unfortunately, unlike the lead-acid batteries found in ICE vehicles, the lithium-ion batteries are not being widely recycled. In fact, globally it’s predicted that the figure sits at around 5%. This is largely because they are much heavier and more intricate than conventional batteries. In fact, the several hundred individual lithium-ion cells need to be disassembled individually, and can explode if not handled correctly. 

Fortunately, there is ongoing pressure on manufacturers to ensure batteries are not simply dumped at the end of their life. For example, in 2021 Tesla reportedly achieved 92% battery cell material recovery in it’s new recycling process. Volkswagen have similarly opened a recycling centre in Salzgitter which will see 3,600 batteries recycled in it’s pilot phase. 

Again, it’s important to remember that in such a fast-paced industry, new solutions to improve these processes are being developed everyday. For example, in the UK, The Faraday Institution are developing methods to provide the UK EV battery recycling industry with scalable solutions to tackle this problem. 

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So, as the evidence suggests, while electric cars are not completely zero-emission vehicles, they are still the greener option. As we transition towards the 2030 ban on new petrol and diesel cars, new advancements in battery technology and renewable energy sources means that electric cars are just going to get greener and greener. Can we say the same about petrol and diesel?