Electric vehicles have been lauded as the first step towards out greener future. A snapshot into the sustainable age, this technology offers an adaptation into a progressive, technologically adept future built for a renewable and environmentally benign future. But like all technological advances, this fledgeling industry has a lot to discover and develop before it can entirely detach itself from the damaging practices it was born from. Can they be as clean as they make out to be? Studies have shown that they’re more efficient than traditional combustion engine cars, but do they have dirtier secrets underneath the hood?
The most widely contested aspect of electric vehicles (EV’s) is what produces the electricity to power them. Today, despite massive coverage on every renewable energy plant that is built, still 60% of the world’s energy is produced by burning fossil fuels. Since electric powered vehicles are subject to whatever electricity is delivered by their grid operator, the green credentials of electric cars are at the whim of however nations decide their energy mix. In Canada where just 16% of energy comes from fossil fuels, the effective carbon emissions from electric vehicles are far less than that of Australia, where up to 80% of electricity is produced from coal and natural gas. Regardless of where the energy for electric cars is found, electric cars still use it more efficiently than standard vehicles. A European study estimating performance in 2020 found that even an electric car using energy solely from an oil-fired power station would use 30% less energy than a petrol car travelling the same distance.
What makes it possible for a technology to run from electricity, regardless of source, is another contentious issue for electric powered vehicles. EV’s use lithium-ion batteries to store the electricity, the same sort that is found in our mobile phones and laptops. These batteries have higher energy capacity and longer lifespans than other conventional batteries like those found in traditional vehicles. Despite the sustainable benefits they offer, the production of these batteries is an environmental sore-spot. The lithium, cobalt, and solvent used to produce the cells are fraught with environmental and health hazards, from the degradation of natural territories to the human rights violations in areas like the Democratic Republic of Congo where the elements are mined. The push towards bigger and more powerful cars is resulting in a strange situation in which smaller conventionally oil-powered vehicles have a less environmentally damaging impact over a lifetime than big battery-powered electric vehicles. These bigger batteries could damage the green credentials of electric cars, even if power grids are fuelled by less coal and more renewables. In a town that is powered predominantly by fossil fuels, over its lifetime the massive Teslas Model S will produce over 226 grams of Co2 equivalent gases per kilometre, as opposed to just 118 grams per kg from a combustion engine powered Nissan Micra. The uncomfortable reality is that the manufacture of batteries plays a more significant role in carbon emissions than anything else in the production of electric vehicles. For a battery EV, 46% of its total carbon footprint is generated at the factory, before it has travelled a single mile. While much of this is offset within the first year of driving regarding the equivalent emissions produced by a combustion engine, it is far from the carbon-neutral perception they tout. As materials, the finite metals are recyclable, though currently the facilities to do so are lacking, and it is still significantly cheaper to mine for virgin material than to use it post-consumer. Lithium-ion batteries are far from perfect, but neither those of standard vehicles. The environmental savings electric vehicles offer are far beyond what is currently available, and technological advancements are getting the industry closer every day with predictions of a 30% reduction of the carbon footprint of lithium-ion batteries within the next decade.
Other materials involved in the production of electric vehicles, from the tyres to fabric lining to the chassis, are so far not much different to that of traditional cars. However, the obligation to make electric vehicles more comparable with standard through advancing their range capacity is driving the need for lightweight components and materials like carbon fibre which will, in turn, reduce consumption. The innards, like most products, are developing, are continuing to get more natural to further the environmental promise of EVs. BMW’s i3 is the first of it’s kind in pushing the green credentials of such transport beyond the powering capabilities. Inside the body made from carbon fibre assembled at a wind-powered factory, the seats are made from post-consumer plastic bottles, leather, wool, and natural dye from olive leaves. The console and inside panels are manufactured from a mixture of eucalyptus wood and kenaf fibres. Compared to the other BMW models, the i3 requires just half of the energy needed for production, and the choice of materials means the entire car is 95% recyclable. BMW is setting a new benchmark for how we assess the sustainability and life-cycle of greener products.
These scenarios of comparison between electric and traditional fuel powered cars raise the most compelling concern for the industry and the future of others as we transition into a greener economy; how do we assess the environmental credentials of these new products? It should not be enough to assume something powered by electric is overwhelmingly better than standard, or that being greener in one scenario equates to a cleaner life-cycle when all aspects are taken into account. For all vehicles, regulations should not be singularly monitored based on what comes out of the exhaust pipe, whether or not there is one. Policies need to be implemented across all stages of a products lifestyle to create accurate assessments of the total environmental impact. Like Energy Performance Certificates now make it a standard requirement for our houses, fridges and washing machines to be ranked across their lifecycle’s for efficiency from A-G, cars should be upheld to the same standard. Until nations fully divest from fossil fuels, the environmental impact of electric vs petrol and diesel cars is not yet different enough to make a definitive choice on what’s better, or worse.
Ultimately, electric vehicles offer hope to an inherently damaging industry. While far from perfect regarding meeting the green dreams they profess, they are a massive step forward to the industries that will need to be developed as we transform into less impactful tenants of the planet. Technology is advancing every day, and as governments reduce fossil fuel usage from grids across the world and implement stricter standards to protect human and ecological rights, the promise of green travel will be closer to being fulfilled. Transport is what developed our civilisation into a thriving global community it now is, not to mention expanding the gene pool. Our green future should not attempt to hark back to days gone by without long-distance travel but develop technology to work for our benefit, and the planets.