How Green Are EVs?

BMI View : We see EVs being a more environmentally friendly option in countries which generate the majority of their power using low carbon sources. At the same time, to reduce the environmental impact of extracting the materials required for the production of li-ion batteries, mining jurisdictions will need to tighten environmental standards, and automakers could look to alternative uses of car batteries after they are depleted.

Electric vehicles (EVs) bring about polarising views on whether they are a more environmentally friendly option compared with internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. In this piece, we look at some of the different aspects which need to be considered in determining the carbon, as well as ecological footprint of EVs.

EV Manufacturing Emissions Are Greater…

Energy Source Of Electricity Largely Influences EV Emissions
Total EV Emissions In Selected Countries, g CO2e/km

BMI View : We see EVs being a more environmentally friendly option in countries which generate the majority of their power using low carbon sources. At the same time, to reduce the environmental impact of extracting the materials required for the production of li-ion batteries, mining jurisdictions will need to tighten environmental standards, and automakers could look to alternative uses of car batteries after they are depleted.

Electric vehicles (EVs) bring about polarising views on whether they are a more environmentally friendly option compared with internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. In this piece, we look at some of the different aspects which need to be considered in determining the carbon, as well as ecological footprint of EVs.

EV Manufacturing Emissions Are Greater…

While EVs have zero emissions at the tailpipe compared with ICE vehicles, one needs to consider the carbon emissions in the manufacturing process of EVs, as well as the generation of electricity needed to charge EVs, in order to get a holistic picture on carbon emissions.

According to estimates from a number of life cycle assessments, manufacturing emissions of EVs are about 70g of carbon dioxide emitted per kilometre (CO 2e/km). This is higher than the 40g CO 2e/km and 35g CO 2e/km emitted when manufacturing a petrol and diesel engine car respectively, due to the more energy intensive process of assembling EVs. These scores assume a lifetime mileage of 200,000 kilometres for petrol vehicles and 150,000 kilometers for EVs (due to battery life span).

...But Low Carbon Power Generation Justifies Their Use

When combining manufacturing emissions with that of producing the electricity to charge EVs, we come to the conclusion that electric cars make sense for a country which generates the majority of its power using low carbon sources.

The accompanying chart compares the total EV emissions (manufacturing and driving) of selected countries. At the lowest end is Paraguay with a score of 70g CO 2e/km (which is actually just the manufacturing emissions of EVs). This is because of its status as a surplus hydroelectric energy exporter, which makes it the 'greenest country to drive an electric car' in our comparison.

Energy Source Of Electricity Largely Influences EV Emissions
Total EV Emissions In Selected Countries, g CO2e/km

India is at the other end of the spectrum with total EV emissions of 370g CO 2e/km due to the usage of high carbon sources such as coal for the majority of its power generation. Such high EV emissions make them comparable to total emissions of petrol vehicles and thus only provide a limited climate benefit in countries with high carbon electricity.

Environmental Impact Of Mining Battery Materials

Besides considering the carbon footprint of an EV, one also needs to take into account the impact on the environment of mining the critical materials required to produce lithium-ion (li-ion) battery packs, which are the preferred power source in new generation EVs.

Nickel, cobalt, graphite, and rare earths, are some of the essential raw materials, which are required in a li-ion battery. However, these minerals are sometimes mined in jurisdictions with lax regulations.

We highlighted the recent crackdown by Chinese authorities on graphite producers in the country due to breaches resulting in environment debasement ( see 'Rising Auto Industry Demand To Shake Up Graphite Market ', April 3). Moreover, the extraction of lithium in certain countries results in water and soil pollution.

Given that we see demand for EVs rising in the coming years, it will be necessary for mining jurisdictions to tighten their environmental standards if EVs are to be truly considered a greener option to conventional vehicles.

Alternative Battery Usage & Recycling To Reduce Footprint

At the same time, it will be necessary for the industry to consider alternative uses of batteries, as well as putting in place proper recycling methods for them, so as to reduce the need for mining additional minerals. After li-ion batteries have become too worn out for additional use in vehicles (usually after 150,000km of driving), they still retain about 80% of their charge, which allows them to be deployed for other uses such as energy storage. As solar power reaches grid parity in many countries, automakers could work with home owners to give depleted car batteries a second life as a store for solar power for use in hours without daylight.

Also, some carmakers have been recycling batteries in order to re-use the metals in them. For example, EV manufacturer Tesla Motors works with battery recyclers Kinsbursky Brothers and Umicore to recycle its spent batteries. That said, recycling recovers only a certain percentage of the materials in the battery and while it reduces the need to extract fresh material, the process also consumes energy, which results in its own carbon emissions.

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Sector: Mining, Autos, Power, Renewables
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