Are sustainable cars truly sustainable?

The complicated effects of electric cars on the environment

Tesla’s high-powered, lithium battery cells are seemingly a feat of engineering. In a compact 46 by 80 mm cylinder, electrons propel the increasingly popular vehicles up to 300 miles with a single charge—all while releasing zero tailpipe emissions. But, what does it take to manufacture complex lithium batteries? And, what happens to these batteries when their shelf life is over?

Aside from the conventional draw of a luxury vehicle, many Tesla owners opted to buy their cars in hopes of limiting greenhouse gas emissions. As more of these futuristic vehicles hit the roads, the question arises: From mining materials to assembling batteries in factories, are environmentally “sustainable” cars actually sustainable?

According to the International Energy Agency, 145 million electric vehicles will be in use by 2030. General Motors (the makers of Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, and GMC vehicles) aims to discontinue gasoline-powered cars by 2035, Volvo is expecting to introduce an all-electric lineup by 2030, and Honda’s goal is for company sales to solely come from zero-emissions vehicles by 2040. In the spring of 2022, Ford plans to release the F-150 lightning (an electric version of the F-150 pickup) and Mercedes Benz is committed to a $47 billion electric-focused campaign for all new cars to be gasoline-free by 2030 “where market conditions allow”.

Jessa Anderson (Minnehaha Academy CFE Director) and her husband purchased a Toyota Prius—a hybrid vehicle that runs on a combination of gasoline and auxiliary battery power—for its superb gas mileage, price point, and environmental friendliness.

“Both my husband and I commute,” explained Anderson. “We wanted something that was affordable, had good gas mileage, and was better for the environment—particularly because we were both driving and we wanted to do something to contribute to making the world a better place.”

The problem with mining materials

According to researchers from the universities of Cambridge, Exeter, and Nijmegen, in 95% of the world driving an EV (electric vehicle) is preferable to a traditional car for combating climate change. However, only 10 million individuals currently drive an EV. In contrast, 1.2 billion (expected to soon be 2 billion) gasoline-powered vehicles are in use. In order to make these numbers comparable, copious amounts of lithium batteries are needed to power gasoline-free cars. To assemble lithium batteries, raw materials such as cobalt, lithium, and other rare earth elements are required. Unfortunately, mining these materials is one of the biggest contributors to carbon emissions in the process of assembling EVs.

Mickaël Daudin, a member of the nonprofit organization Pact, works with African mining communities. According to Daudin, EV manufacturers need to work with mines to reduce their environmental footprint. Additionally, Daudin believes companies need to ensure miners are working in safe conditions—a major concern of EVs for several social justice groups. If companies mine responsibly, the rise of electric vehicles could be a substantial opportunity for countries like Congo, explained Daudin to The New York Times. But if they don’t, EVs “will put the environment, and many, many miners’ lives at risk.”

Building batteries, emitting chemicals

Although battery-powered vehicles are undoubtedly “green” while in use, carbon emissions during the manufacturing process must be considered to accurately assess their overall environmental impact. Recently, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Energy Initiative discovered battery production for an EV produces higher greenhouse emissions than manufacturing traditional automobiles.

“Producing electric vehicles leads to significantly more emissions than producing petrol cars,” Florian Knobloch, a fellow at the Cambridge Centre for Environment, Energy and Natural Resource Governance, told CNBC. “Depending on the country of production, that’s between 30% to 40% extra in production emissions, which is mostly from the battery production.”

In the future, the process of decarbonization (reducing greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels) is expected to lessen the environmental harm of EVs, but the necessary technology is currently unavailable.

“When you look forward to the rest of the decade, we will see massive amounts of decarbonization in power generation and massive amounts of decarbonization in the industrial sector,” Eric Hannon, a McKinsey & Company partner based in Frankfurt, described to CNBC. “EVs will benefit from all of that decarbonization.”

Charging—how much better is it than fueling?

As a replacement for fueling at a gas station, electric vehicles require charging. The problem: power grids mostly run on fossil fuels. If charged on coal-heavy power grids (which are prevalent in the Midwest), electric vehicles are deemed worse for the environment than hybrid cars.

“Coal tends to be the critical factor,” observed Jeremy Michalek (professor of engineering at Carnegie Mellon University) to The New York Times. “If you’ve got electric cars…that are being plugged in at night and leading nearby coal plants to burn more coal to charge them, then the climate benefits won’t be as great, and you can even get more air pollution.”

Generating electricity from renewable sources is a process that, currently, is not completely green but remains preferable to using fossil fuels. Tim Swanson, Minnehaha Academy science teacher, believes focusing on the advancement of renewable energy should be a priority before engineers completely fixate themselves on electric cars. “Electric cars are exciting,” stated Swanson. “But, plugging a car into an unclean energy source isn’t the greatest option.”

Many scientists have explored alternative fuel options to replace power grids sustained by nonrenewable energy. Nevertheless, the many drawbacks of these potential substitutes keep fossil fuel charging stations widespread. Hydrogen, an alternative fuel that was deemed by many the “clean energy of the future” was found to emit an abundance of greenhouse gases (the process of isolating hydrogen from natural gas releases catastrophic amounts of carbon dioxide and methane). Industry leaders have suggested capturing these gases, however, researchers from Cornell and Stanford recently revealed that the entire supply chain for manufacturing hydrogen fuel produces more emissions than burning natural gas. Despite these issues, National Grid claims hydrogen fuel will be a major player in the upcoming years. Ultimately, minimizing the long-term environmental effects of electric vehicles relies on creating efficient renewable electricity power stations that are available in every place necessary and proven to be entirely clean.

Where do the dead batteries go?

As earlier electric vehicles reach the end of their lifetime, a new challenge presents itself: where do used batteries go? Recent statistics show only 5% of lithium batteries are recycled due to the difficulty of extracting important materials from the indestructible outer shell. Oftentimes, mining new metals is less costly than recycling used materials which lessens the incentive for businesses to choose the environmentally friendly path. However, if electric vehicle batteries begin ending up in landfills, an abundance of toxic chemicals will be released into the environment.

Lithium batteries made to power electric vehicles are built with a concept similar to nesting dolls. The main pack typically houses several modules which are constructed from multiple smaller cells. Within the cells, lithium atoms pass through an electrolyte between a graphite anode and a metal oxide cathode. Recyclers target costly materials in the cathode (oftentimes cobalt and nickel), but the removal of these metals frequently requires the cells to be shredded then burned—an energy-intensive and water-intensive process. If not burned, dismantling batteries requires an impractical amount of time. Nissan’s rectangular leaf batteries reportedly require 2 hours to take apart, and Tesla’s electric cells—known for their unbreakable polyurethane cement holding the battery together— require toxic chemicals to break apart. To further add to possible hazards, if recyclers cut too deep into the cell, it could short-circuit or combust.

Although the process of recycling lithium batteries is currently fraught with problems, many researchers have dedicated themselves to discovering possible solutions. In a study conducted by MIT, used car batteries were found to effectively store solar power for over a decade past their conventional lifetime.

Radenka Maric, a professor at the University of Connecticut’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, is hopeful for the future of repurposing old EVs.“The percentage of lithium batteries being recycled is very low,” commented Maric to The New York Times. “But, with time and innovation, that’s going to increase.”

No universal solution

A complete transition from traditional, gasoline-powered vehicles to EVs is not the universal solution to combat climate change. Walking, biking, and the overall reduction in private vehicles are options that benefit the environment more than switching to an electric vehicle.

“It’s no silver bullet for climate change mitigation,” Knobloch stated of electric cars. “Ideally, you also try to reduce the number of cars massively, and try to push things such as public transport.”

Despite several flaws, electric vehicles will undoubtedly play a major role in the future of automobiles. The mass movement of battery-powered cars is coming. Will the technology be ready to make these sustainable cars truly sustainable?


About Grace Kassebaum

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