Electric vehicles (EVs) are more environmentally beneficial modes of transportation because they utilize electricity as their primary fuel rather than gasoline or diesel. EVs employ rechargeable batteries to store energy and are propelled by an electric motor.
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The Rising Demand for Electric Vehicles
Although EVs were first introduced in the mid-19th century, they gained attention only after the release of the Toyota Prius in 1997 (Toyota, 2017). Over the last two decades, the EV market has been boosted due to people’s awareness of clean energy and climate change.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), over 10.1 million EVs were sold globally in 2022, and the number is expected to rise by 35% in 2023, reaching 14 million (IEA, 2023).
From 2011 to 2021, sales jumped from 120,000 to 6.6 million (Arrieche, 2023). Tesla, the current leader among the electric car companies, delivered 1.31 million in 2022 (Business Wire, 2023).
Due to their popularity, EVs are paramount in most countries’ transition plans toward an efficient, cleaner, and low-carbon transport system. For example, considering the production and use of vehicles, a Tesla Model 3 produces 91 grams of CO2 equivalent per kilometer, 65% less than the 260 grams of a Mercedes C 220d (electrive.com, 2020). However, many believe they are less environmentally friendly than the general perception (Lomborg, 2013).
While EVs do not produce greenhouse gases from their tailpipes, emissions are created during the manufacturing of vehicles, batteries, and charging stations (Choudhury, 2021). Raw elements like lithium, nickel, and cobalt, necessary for batteries, must be mined and raised to high temperatures using fossil fuels (Carreon, 2023). Around 2.5 and 16 metric tons of CO2 are produced while manufacturing the 80 kWh lithium-ion battery in a Tesla Model 3 (Tesla, 2021).
What are the Environmental Challenges of Electric Vehicles?
The extraction and manufacturing processes of producing EV batteries negatively affect the environment, such as pollution, habitat destruction, and carbon emissions.
Argentina currently holds 21% of the world's lithium reserves (Riofrancos, et al., 2023), and there are plans to open 13 additional mines, which could cause extensive harm to an already vulnerable ecosystem and exploit the nation's natural resources (Nugent, 2022).
The development of EV charging infrastructure also presents environmental challenges, requiring energy, resources, and land to construct new stations and related facilities.
The rising need for lithium, primarily due to the increased demand for larger vehicle batteries with higher capacities, necessitates water-intensive manufacturing methods.
Last year, a team compared the environmental impact of EVs with internal combustion engine vehicles, considering the battery production, use, secondary utilization, recycling, and remanufacturing (ICEVs) (Xia & Li, 2022). The study revealed that the production phase of EVs has a higher environmental impact than internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEVs) due to battery manufacturing.
Dealing with the Environmental Challenges of EVs
The primary challenge lies in the lack of substantial data concerning the potential effects of emerging EV technologies.
A thorough examination of literature (Onat & Kucukvar, 2022) focused on 138 life cycle assessment studies for these emerging EV technologies highlighted several significant knowledge gaps in the following areas:
- A deficiency in socio-economic assessment
- A lack of integrated modeling approaches and macro-level evaluation
- Inadequate consideration of end-of-life management and circular economy applications
- An insufficient representation of the developing world
- An inadequate representation of emerging technologies
In a recent comprehensive assessment, (Philippot, et al., 2023) analyzed the environmental impacts throughout the entire life cycle of a prototype lithium nickel manganese cobalt oxide battery.
The team compared the prototype and a state-of-the-art graphite-based battery and concluded that the prototype battery emitted 265 gCO2eq/kWh over its life cycle. However, by transitioning to an electricity mix sourced from renewable energy, the team suggested that the impact could be reduced by up to 53%, particularly in terms of freshwater eutrophication.
This means only EVs with 100% renewable energy electricity are believed to have zero emissions. For example, Norway, the largest EV market in Europe, gets most of its energy from hydropower (Chhantyal, 2022), giving all those EVs a negligible carbon footprint (OECD, 2022).
In the last decade, battery recycling technology has also gained some attention as many companies are examining the market context, common technologies, business models, and success factors. It is essential to ensure the batteries are usable to give them a second life. This means they can achieve a higher technology readiness level with a cost-effective methodology.
A comprehensive analysis conducted by (Xia & Li, 2022) highlighted the importance of optimizing the power structure, advancing battery technology, and enhancing recycling efficiency to minimize the environmental impact of EVs.
In an ideal scenario, recycling end-of-life EV batteries could potentially supply a significant portion of global cobalt (60%), lithium (53%), manganese (57%), and nickel (53%) requirements by 2040 (Richter, 2022). However, the recycling processes are still evolving, and current low volumes limit recycling activities.
Another recent announcement from the European Union about introducing digital product passports could play a crucial role in providing accurate data, ensuring transparent supply chains, and enabling collaboration among value-chain participants. Adapting this regulation could enhance transparency, traceability, and accountability throughout the battery life cycle, requiring access to battery management systems and mandating digital passports and carbon footprint declarations.
Utilizing renewable energies, reducing vehicle weight, exploring novel battery technologies without essential raw materials, and ensuring supply chain diligence all play significant roles in mitigating the environmental impact of EVs in the future.
The commercial use of sodium-ion batteries is expected to increase for specific electromobility applications, potentially replacing the need for lithium, cobalt, and nickel with less harmful materials.
To reduce reliance on fossil fuels for electricity production, improving and expanding grid capacity and integrating renewable energy sources into the grid is imperative to minimize environmental consequences.
Promoting sustainable manufacturing practices, such as utilizing renewable energy in manufacturing facilities and implementing efficient production methods, is also vital in reducing the adverse environmental effects of EV production.
Continue Reading: Latest Research in the Environmental Benefits and Challenges of Electric Vehicles
References and Further Reading
Arrieche, A. (2023). Biggest electric vehicle companies: Can Tesla keep EV top dog crown? [Online] capital.com. Available at: https://capital.com/top-20-global-electric-vehicle-companies-ranking-tesla-ev-top-dog (Accessed on 02 June 2023)
Business Wire . (2023, January 02). Tesla Vehicle Production & Deliveries and Date for Financial Results & Webcast for Fourth Quarter 2022. [Online] Tesla Investor Relations. Available at: https://ir.tesla.com/press-release/tesla-vehicle-production-deliveries-and-date-financial-results-webcast-fourth-quarter (Accessed on 02 June 2023)
Carreon, R. A. (2023, May 05). The EV Battery Supply Chain Explained. [Online] RMI. Available at: https://rmi.org/the-ev-battery-supply-chain-explained/ (Accessed on 02 June 2023)
Chhantyal, P. (2022, April 11). Scandinavia's renewable energy boom attracts industries. [Online] Dr. Green Economy. Available at: https://www.drgreeneconomy.com/p/scandinavia-has-too-much-renewable (Accessed on 02 June 2023)
Choudhury, S. R. (2021, July 26). Are electric cars ‘green’? The answer is yes, but it’s complicated. [Online] CNBC. Available at: https://www.cnbc.com/2021/07/26/lifetime-emissions-of-evs-are-lower-than-gasoline-cars-experts-say.html (Accessed on 02 June 2023)
electrive.com. (2020, August 31). Study: Electric cars cause less CO2 emissions than ICE. [Online] electrive.com. Available at: https://www.electrive.com/2020/08/31/study-currently-available-electric-cars-cause-less-co2-emissions-than-ices/ (Accessed on 02 June 2023)
Font, C., Siqueira, H. V., Neto, J. E., Santos, J. L., Stevan, Jr., S. L., & Converti, A. (2023). Second Life of Lithium-Ion Batteries of Electric Vehicles: A Short Review and Perspectives. MDPI. doi:10.3390/en16020953
IEA. (2023, April 26). Demand for electric cars is booming, with sales expected to leap 35% this year after a record-breaking 2022. [Online] IEA. Available at: https://www.iea.org/news/demand-for-electric-cars-is-booming-with-sales-expected-to-leap-35-this-year-after-a-record-breaking-2022 (Accessed on 02 June 2023)
Lai, X., Chen, Q., Tang, X., Zhou, Y., Gao, F., Guo, Y., . . . Zheng, Y. (2022). Critical review of life cycle assessment of lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles: A lifespan perspective. eTransportation. doi:10.1016/j.etran.2022.100169
Lomborg, B. (2013). Bjorn Lomborg: Green Cars Have a Dirty Little Secret. [Online] WSJ. Available at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887324128504578346913994914472 (Accessed on 02 June 2023)
Nugent, C. (2022). New Lithium Mining Technology Could Give Argentina a Sustainable Gold Rush. [Online] TIME. Available at: https://time.com/6200372/lithium-mining-technology-argentina-gold/ (Accessed on 02 June 2023)
OECD. (2022). Norway’s evolving incentives for zero-emission vehicles. [Online] OECD. Available at: https://www.oecd.org/climate-action/ipac/practices/norway-s-evolving-incentives-for-zero-emission-vehicles-22d2485b/ (Accessed on 02 June 2023)
Onat, C. N., & Kucukvar, M. (2022). A systematic review on sustainability assessment of electric vehicles: Knowledge gaps and future perspectives. Environmental Impact Assessment Review. doi:10.1016/j.eiar.2022.106867
Philippot, M. L., Costa, D., Cardellini, G., Sutter, L., Smekens, J., Mierlo, J., & Messagie, M. (2023). Life cycle assessment of a lithium-ion battery with a silicon anode for electric vehicles. Journal of Energy Storage. doi:10.1016/j.est.2023.106635
Richter, J. L. (2022). A circular economy approach is needed for electric vehicles. Nature Electronics. doi:10.1038/s41928-021-00711-9
Riofrancos, T., Kendall, A., Dayemo, K. K., Haugen, M., McDonald, K., Hassan, B., & Slattery, M. (2023). Achieving Zero Emissions with More Mobility and Less Mining. [Online] Climate and Community. Available at: https://www.climateandcommunity.org/more-mobility-less-mining (Accessed on 02 June 2023)
Tesla. (2021). Impact Report 2020. [Online] Tesla. Available at: https://www.tesla.com/ns_videos/2020-tesla-impact-report.pdf (Accessed on 02 June 2023)
Toyota. (2017). The evolution of the Prius. [Online] Global Toyota. Available at: https://global.toyota/en/prius20th/evolution/ (Accessed on 02 June 2023)
Xia, X., & Li, P. (2022). A review of the life cycle assessment of electric vehicles: Considering the influence of batteries. Science of The Total Environment. doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2021.152870