With all the buzz surrounding electric cars, they have been both embraced enthusiastically and approached with skepticism. Tesla has become the “in” car, making its appearance in movies and popular culture. With falling prices, many other electric vehicles (EVs) have started making their way into more of our garages. But are electric cars actually sustainable?
We join many others with the viewpoint that, yes, electric cars are sustainable and absolutely necessary in order to reduce the environmental impact of transportation. However, there are two sides to every story, and there are certainly some environmental downfalls of electric cars.
This article will take a look at the pros and cons of EVs, and how we can expect them to be even more sustainable in the future.
Are Electric Cars Actually Sustainable: The Bad
Let’s tackle the bad news first.
The batteries require mined materials
While electric cars minimize our dependence on oil, they’re eating up nearly all of earth’s resources of minerals like lithium and cobalt. According to a 2015 study, by 2050, it’s expected that electric cars could require 74-248% of our lithium reserves and 50% of our cobalt reserves.
It’s also estimated that mining and refinement alone of these minerals contributes to 30% of a battery’s greenhouse gas emissions. Not only that, but like many other forms of mining, cobalt mining in particular has been associated with child labor and hazardous work conditions—not to mention significant environmental impacts.
Battery recycling rates are low
When we consider the total life cycle emissions of an electric car, one study found that if the battery were ever replaced (which may be expected for vehicles driven over 160,000 km/99,419 miles), internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles fare better from an emissions standpoint.
Not only is this due to the fact that battery minerals require significant energy impacts to mine and produce, but also because the options for recycling batteries are slim. Even with lithium’s significant value and use in things like EV batteries, as well as those in the device you’re currently reading this article on, it’s difficult to properly dispose or recycle it.
For one, many of the battery’s minerals and chemicals are toxic and flammable. This makes a safe process for recycling very expensive and time consuming, especially because much of it is done by hand.
Now, the process is slow, complex, and not adopted by many car manufacturers or recycling facilities—meaning that dangerous end-of-life battery packs are ending up in landfills, leaching toxins into the environment.
However, over time, the outlook is expected to improve significantly. By 2030, some experts hope that 50% of the battery’s raw materials will come from recycled sources. It’s expected that every battery manufacturing factory will also be located alongside a recycling plant.
This is already happening in North America and Europe. In 2021, Canadian firm Li-Cycle started construction on a lithium recycling plant in Rochester, N.Y. They’ve also improved upon a specific type of recycling (hydrometallurgical), which is considered to be most sustainable and will recover >95% of the materials.
The outlook is especially bright when we consider that they’re just one of 14 battery recycling projects that have got their start recently.
The electricity has to come from somewhere
When cruising around in a silent car, many are quick to forget that something is powering it. But when we’re plugging in, we might be sourcing electricity that is anything but green.
In countries like Australia, Germany, and the United States, coal is still used as a significant source of energy. It’s important to keep in mind that coal is responsible for carbon dioxide emissions that are 75% higher than natural gas.
This makes EV-filled highways in coal-heavy states like Colorado, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Utah, West Virginia, and Wyoming less sustainable. If you’re wondering about the specific emissions in your area, you can use the Department of Energy’s calculator. Choose by state to see what type of annual emissions your EV, hybrid, or gasoline car has.
While some areas may be associated with more indirect emissions associated with electricity source, even in countries like China—the world’s largest consumer of coal—electric cars are still associated with emissions rates that are 60 to 100 grams of CO2 less than conventional gasoline vehicles.
Our power grids aren’t prepared for the shift to electric cars
Another common concern with electric vehicles is the impact they’ll have on our power grids as a whole. By 2050, it’s expected that energy consumption could increase by 38%, in large part due to a shift towards electricity-powered vehicles.
An electric vehicle can get roughly 100 miles on an amount of energy equivalent to what’s required to operate appliances, lights, heat or air conditioning, and computers in an American home every day. If EV owners try to charge their cars when everyone else is (typically overnight), this could overwhelm the grid.
Fortunately, this could also be the reason behind an increase in renewable energy in many states, like California, where they’re already ramping up their power capacity.
Similarly, it could be the reason for innovative technology to roll out, like vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology, where electric cars could actually store energy from renewable sources, then return some of it to the grid when plugged in.
Are Electric Cars Actually Sustainable: The Good
While it’s clear that some of the downfalls of electric cars can bring about positive, sustainable change, it’s important to realize the many ways electric cars are already making our world a greener place.
According to the U.S Department of Energy, electric vehicles “are connected, fun, and practical”—but in reality they’re so much more.
Electric vehicles reduce emissions
There are two types of emissions to be aware of: direct and lifecycle. We previously touched on some of the lifecycle emissions of EVs, which are associated with manufacturing, recycling, and disposal, and are significantly impacted by the batteries.
Direct emissions occur through a car’s tailpipe, and can lead to smog, which can lead to one of our top “silent killers:” air pollution. All electric vehicles have zero direct emissions. This means that they don’t release pollutants that harm human and ecosystem health, nor do they release greenhouse gases. Even with hybrid vehicles that still use a gasoline engine, direct emissions are significantly less than with gasoline vehicles.
To put it another way, an average EV produces emissions equivalent to a gasoline vehicle that gets 88 miles per gallon (mpg). That’s obviously far better than even the most-fuel efficient cars on the market—which get roughly 58 mpg—and significantly better than the average, which gets roughly 31 mpg.
Electricity-powered cars can reduce our dependence on foreign oil
In the US alone, around nine billion barrels of petroleum are used every year, around two-thirds of which for transportation. We’re heavily reliant on petroleum from other countries, which makes us vulnerable to disruptions, conflict, and price spikes.
Electric cars are different, because they depend on nearly entirely domestic energy—like coal, nuclear, natural gas, and renewable sources. When we shift to this, instead of the 11.7 million barrels of crude oil that are imported into the US every day, we can potentially end troop deployments to oil-security missions in foreign countries and become more resilient as we approach a time of peak oil.
Electric cars provide a cheaper way to get around
By 2027, it’s anticipated that electric cars will be cheaper to manufacture than gasoline-powered cars, but already some of these cost-savings benefits are being passed down to drivers. While current electric car purchasers might be faced with a higher upfront cost, electric cars have been shown to keep more money in the pockets of drivers, especially in the long-run.
A study done by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that, over a lifetime, hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles had roughly the same price as traditional cars (but just half the emissions). Fully electric cars had the lowest cost—meaning that cars with the lowest emissions also happened to have a lowest per-mile cost.
In the market for a new car? Check out this app that was developed by the same MIT research team. It compares the costs and emissions of many models (both electric and not) on the market today.
Similarly, a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that charging was the cheaper alternative to filling up at the pump in most major American cities.
Battery-electric engines have less moving parts than ICE vehicles, meaning lower maintenance costs, too. They also use regenerative braking, which has been associated with less wear and tear.
Plus, many local and federal governments are incentivizing the purchase of electric vehicles. As just one example, federal tax credits can help you save up to $7,500 on the purchase of a new car!
Are Electric Cars Actually Sustainable: The Future
Electric cars are great, and they’re only getting better. With government policies in place, shifts towards renewable energy, and improvements in the manufacturing and recycling of electric vehicles and their parts, the future of electric-powered cars is even greener and cheaper, and we’re looking forward to the roadways of the future.