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Are EVs Really Better Than Combustion Cars?
Do EVs create more environmental and humanitarian damage?
As the EV revolution pushes on, its haters get louder. Every criticism under the Sun is continually thrown at this burgeoning technology. But recently, I have noticed more and more dangerous misinformation being spread about EVs that undermine their planet-saving credentials. Today, I want to debunk two of the most significant pieces of EV misinformation out there, their environmental and human impact, to settle the score. Let’s start with the big one, the environmental impact.
People are saying that mining for EVs is far worse for the environment than fossil fuel cars. The destruction of the mining needed, combined with the high emissions to produce EVs, makes them a bigger threat to the environment than good old gasoline. But this simply isn’t true.
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A recent report from T&E found that “the raw material needs of EV batteries pale in comparison to the fuel burned by fossil fuel cars, which, unlike batteries, cannot be recycled.” This is because combustion engines burn through 300 times more material than that that is lost over the lifetime of an electric car. Don’t forget that petrol and diesel have to be mined and refined, too, and this process has dramatic environmental and climate impacts. So, while it is true that it takes more material and energy to produce an EV than a combustion vehicle, over its lifetime, the EV will have a far more negligible impact on the planet.
But, many cite the fact that the electricity to charge these EVs is still coming from coal and gas, so they still produce carbon emissions throughout their life, making them just as bad as combustion vehicles.
This is where Argonne’s Greenhouse Gases, Regulated Emissions and Energy Use in Technologies (GREET) model comes in, as this allows us to compare the lifetime emissions of comparable electric and combustion vehicles and see at which point, measured in miles driven, the EV carbon footprint breaks even with the combustion car depending on energy mix you use.
This model has been used to compare a Tesla Model 3 standard range and a Toyota Corolla. In Norway, which uses renewables for around 70% of its energy supply, the break-even point between the two cars is at 8,700 miles. This means that over the Tesla’s lifespan of approximately 200,000 miles, it will have a dramatically smaller carbon footprint than the Toyota. At the other end of the spectrum, we have China and Poland, which still get a significant portion of their energy from coal, the most polluting energy source by far. The Tesla has to drive 78,700 miles in these countries to break even with the Toyota. So even in this worst-case scenario, the Tesla still has a much smaller lifespan carbon footprint. This is because EVs are incredibly efficient with their energy, getting the equivalent of nearly 150 MPG!
But, unlike a combustion car, which burns through thousands of kilos of fuel in its lifetime, almost everything that makes an EV tick can be recycled. Modern EV recycling is so good that only about 30kg of metals are lost. The vast majority of the lithium, steel, nickel, copper and other metals can be remade into another EV and reduce the amount of environmental damage through mining and emission in the process. Indeed, this recycling industry has yet to properly take off, and only about 5% of scrapped automotive batteries are being properly recycled. However, that is changing, as rising material costs and tightening climate legislation are making manufacturers turn to recycled sources for their materials.
In short, EVs are better for the environment, even in a worst-case scenario. They are also going to get a lot better in the near future as the automotive world embraces a more circular economy (which isn’t possible with fossil fuels).
Now, let’s talk about the second big issue. The humanitarian one. This all stems from cobalt, a key material for high-energy density and fast-charging lithium-ion batteries. It is a by-product of copper and nickel mining, but by far the biggest exporter is the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The mines in the DRC are no high-tech affair; it is a giant pit filled to the brim with prospector miners, many of whom are children. In other words, these mines have been found to violate human rights, all driven by the need for cobalt.
This has led many to proclaim that EVs are inhumane and morally crooked. But that ignores the bigger picture.
Combustion-engined cars also use cobalt. Cobalt catalysts are used to refine crude oil into gasoline and diesel, and these catalysts degrade over time. All in all, about one kilogram of cobalt can be used to purify about 55 million litres of fuel. This means that through the lifetime of the average combustion car, it will use around 45g of cobalt through fuel use. But cobalt is also used throughout the engine construction as cobalt alloys. Cobalt alloys are incredibly corrosive resistant, making them ideal for springs, valves, pistons, piston liners, engine blocks, valve trains and even transmissions. Sadly, there are no readily available figures on just how much cobalt is in a combustion car power train, but it could easily be a kilogram or two.
So, if you are morally against the use of cobalt, don’t use a regular car either. Or a phone, laptop, tablet or other modern battery-powered gadget, as these two use cobalt-heavy lithium-ion battery packs.
But batteries aren’t as cobalt-dependent as you might think.
Firstly, over 97% of the cobalt can be recovered through recycling, and some recycling processes can yield a 100% return on cobalt. This has enabled battery manufacturers to get far more circular than before. For example, Northvolt is already producing 100% recycled lithium, nickel and cobalt batteries. Apple is also in the process of doing the same and intends to use 100% recycled cobalt throughout its entire product line by 2025. These batteries are not only more morally sound than those currently being used, but also have a more negligible impact on the environment through reduced mining and reduced manufacturing emissions.
Then, there is also the plethora of cobalt-free battery technologies. LFP cells are already widespread in EVs, and they have no cobalt and take less emissions to produce than lithium-ion cells. There are also pure silicone anode lithium-ion cells that are just as energy-dense and fast charging as current cells but without any lithium-ion. But there are also sodium-ion cells, lithium-phosphate cells, semi-solid cells and solid-state cells coming to the EV market very soon with no or very little cobalt within them.
There are also more cobalt mines opening up around the world, and countries like Australia and Canada are dramatically increasing their cobalt output, and these mines have no humanitarian issues at all.
So, while EV’s use of cobalt is an issue right now, it is not an inherent problem of the technology, and it is one that is already being solved.
Now, I haven’t even touched on other topics, like how many people get respiratory diseases from combustion vehicles, how EVs produce far fewer microplastics, how new mining technology can make EVs even greener, and how carbon-neutral synthetic fuels that can reduce combustion vehicle emissions are woefully inefficient, and a poor use of recourse and will be for the foreseeable future. Basically, no matter how you spin it, EVs are better for the planet and for the people living on it. So don’t be fooled by the misinformation plastered all over the internet and dodgy publications; I know you are better than that.
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