Just how green are electric cars?

by Juan Santiago

The BBC has reported that Tesla have been ordered to put on hold plans for a 'Gigafactory’ near Berlin. Environmentalists have won a court injunction on the basis that the factory would involve clearing 91 hectares of forest. This clash between environmentalists and the electric car maker highlights the difficulty of measuring just how green electric vehicles (EV) really are. To meet climate change goals the EU has adopted regulation that promotes a shift to EV. The regulation seeks to reduce CO2 emission from new cars and vans by 15% by 2025 and by more than 30% by 2030. The goal places a heavy emphasis on a shift to electric vehicles. While the expected decrease in road emissions will be significant, the effect on total greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) will be more complicated to measure. There is more to be considered than just tailpipe emissions. There are four other issues to consider. Firstly, it will be appropriate to take into consideration the emissions from generating local electricity. The emissions from electricity generation can vary greatly. Coal in Germany, nuclear in France and wind in Denmark all provide different energy generation starting points. Secondly, to fully measure the difference in emissions between electric and internal combustion engines, production and disposal should also be considered. One key difference in this regard is the electric vehicle’s battery. These batteries rely on scarce metals, such as lithium and cobalt, that must be mined and then shipped long distances to manufacturing plants. This subtracts from the environmentally friendly credentials of EV. Estimates suggest that electric vehicles may have to drive 85,000-100,000 km before they become greener than a petrol-driven car on a complete-life measure. Thirdly, there are other environmental costs related to production that must be recognised. For instance, the lithium mining process is water-intensive, as many as 500,000 gallons of water are required to produce 1 tonne of lithium. This is a problem for the local farmers of Salar de Atacama, Chile where mining activities consume up to 65% of the region’s water. Toxic chemicals used in the lithium extraction process have been known to leak and wreak havoc on local habitats such as rivers and grasslands. The lithium battery once again proves to be a problem when it comes to disposal. Currently, only a small percentage of lithium batteries are recycled. If left in landfills, the fluids from the batteries could leak into the ground beneath, polluting the environment. Finally, there are social problems. The production of cobalt comes with a problem. 70% of the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Of that, an estimated 30% is produced by informal miners who dig by hand in the mineral-rich environment. This unregulated practice involves child labour. The situation is complex, and our understanding is still evolving. However, the fact that we are able to drill down and assess green activities in ways that were unimaginable five years ago is a sign of progress. Companies and individuals that want to do better will nudge the world forwards, even if the route to that better outcome is bumpy.