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Can Electric Vehicles Save The Earth?

Ben Parker

Credit Ben Parker

Article Highlights
  • Electric vehicle sales have increased from 540,000 to 2.2 million in four years. But the production of these vehicles and the energy sources they use may offset their benefit. 

  • Internal combustion vehicles are inefficient and contribute large amounts of emission to the earth’s atmosphere.

  • Electric vehicles’ batteries require the mining of finite toxic materials. Advancements in technology to recycle lithium batteries are beginning to offset the harm. 

  • A comparative study of fuel sources revealed that hydrogen is the least environmentally detrimental and most sustainable source of energy for our vehicles. 

  • Electric vehicles are a step in the right direction but they are not the final answer to a sustainable future.

The earth is warming up, and more people are waking up to that. In 2019, roughly 2.2 million plug-in electric or hybrid cars were sold worldwide. In 2015 that number was only 540,000. More and more people are buying these cars, and more people are looking for ways to reduce their individual carbon footprint. Governments are providing subsidies for people to buy electric. But when considering the manufacturing and production of the vehicle, and the production of the electricity used to power the vehicle, are these cars really better for the environment? Lithium-ion batteries require lithium mining, cobalt, and nickel which begs the question, are we just trading one vice for a few more?

As Americans, we are almost innately connected to our gas-burning, oil drinking vehicles. Because they are so commonplace, it’s hard for us to really see the full effect they have on the environment. Aside from the environmental cost of producing these vehicles, one issue is how inefficient they are at converting fuel into power. ICVs (internal combustion vehicles) that use petroleum lose two-thirds of the fuel energy during combustion. So much is wasted, and that loss is intensified when more people drive alone. When you drive a car by yourself, you emit twice as much as a bus, and more than three times that of a train. In Sustainability Prospects for Autonomous Vehicles, Martin George details “automobile use accounts for about one-half of the global transport energy - equal to the combined shares of trucks, planes, ships, and trains.”

The International Energy Association (IEA) reported that in the year 2018 we saw CO₂ emissions (globally) increase 1.8 percent to what is now a historic record high. The report continues stating that 85% of that increase came from the United States. We deserve a trophy. Last year BP made a report on oil production and use which showed that the United States produced over 20 percent more gasoline than the next country on the list. We are so reliant on this stuff it’s crazy. We’re digging ourselves into a literal and figurative hole. But are electric vehicles the ladder that gets us out?

Salar De Uyuni in Bolivia is the largest salt flat in the world and contains anywhere from 50% to 70% of the worlds Lithium. The Lithium is just under the upper layer of salt and has a fairly high concentration. Over the past 35-40 years companies have poured money into extraction efforts that have been met by opposition as many believe the money wont ever reach the local communities

Credit Jeison Higuita

Salar De Uyuni, Bolivia

Credit Samuel Crimshaw

As Americans, we are almost innately connected to our gas-burning, oil drinking vehicles. Because they are so commonplace, it’s hard for us to really see the full effect they have on the environment.

Gas-powered cars have been the arch-nemesis of electric vehicles for a long time, perhaps longer than you may think. Before the production of the Ford Model T, one-third of road vehicles were electric. At that time electric vehicles suffered similar limitations to what they do today — range. Further, the mass production of gas-powered cars made them much cheaper than electric and therefore stifled the growth of electric vehicles. What an alternate reality that could’ve been. Since that time electric and hybrid cars have ebbed and flowed in their popularity. We know today their popularity has strongly increased. In 2012 400,000 people waited for the first Tesla, within 24 hours of announcing the Model 3, Tesla was buried in a full 200,000 person waitlist. Today people want electric cars. 

Because of the rise in popularity of these cars, a new race for all-electric has begun. New and old manufacturers are beginning what could be called the Electric Gold Rush. To produce these cars a few key ingredients are needed, namely cobalt, nickel, and lithium. These are finite minerals that when mined produce seriously negative effects on our environment. 

In 2018 Wired Magazine reported on some of the effects of lithium mining, “As the world scrambles to replace fossil fuels with clean energy, the environmental impact of finding all the lithium required to enable that transformation could become a serious issue in its own right. ‘One of the biggest environmental problems caused by our endless hunger for the latest and smartest devices is a growing mineral crisis, particularly those needed to make our batteries,’ says Christina Valimaki an analyst at Elsevier.”

The good news is, innovations in the field of lithium mining and recycling have led to decreases in the harmful effects of its extraction. What increases this issue is the need for cobalt and nickel. As it stands now, the Congo is the only place you can get cobalt. The presence of cobalt and the lack of regulation in the Congo have led to a wild west of mining efforts to get it. 

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Clouds from a factory burning batteries 1972 Houston Texas

Credit Marc St. Gil

Until we’re able to safely harness the power of hydrogen, electric-powered vehicles are our best bet at a sustainable future.

A life cycle assessment measures the environmental impact of a vehicle from production to disposal. When evaluated in this way, a larger story is revealed about the sustainability of electric vehicles. The Clean Energy Research Laboratory conducted a study evaluating bunch of different energy sources like gasoline, hydrogen, methanol, ammonia, electric, and more. They were evaluated on these criteria: human toxicity, global warming, acidification potential, eutrophication (runoff), depletion of abiotic resources (use of minerals, water, and soil), stratospheric ozone depletion and terrestrial ecotoxicity (how pollutants affect living things). This is where it gets interesting. What the study found was that hydrogen-powered vehicles are the most “environmentally benign” across all criteria. After hydrogen, ammonia powered vehicles are the most sustainable. EVs were closely behind ammonia as sustainable. The study explains that the production and disposal of current lithium-ion batteries is the reason EVs fall behind.

Trunk decal "fight smog ride a horse" 1973 New York

Credit Will Blanche

We have so much room to improve in energy technology. Until we’re able to safely harness the power of hydrogen, electric-powered vehicles are our best bet at a sustainable future. The environmental impact of electric vehicles is inextricably linked to our energy infrastructures. Where you plug your electric car in to charge determines how clean your electric vehicle is. In the United States, natural gas provides the majority of the country with energy. Natural gas is better than coal but not a sustainable solution. Although awareness of alternative energy has increased, adoption hasn’t increased. Last year’s BP report ended with Spencer Dale, BP Chief economist stating, “At a time when society is increasing its demands for an accelerated transition to a low carbon energy system, the energy data for 2018 paint a worrying picture, with both energy demand and carbon emissions growing at the fastest rates seen for years. Last year’s developments sound yet another warning alarm that the world is on an unsustainable path.”