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As our world speeds irrevocably closer to the global warming tipping point, many of us are consciously choosing to buy local, switching to plastic free and generally thinking more about our consumer choices in order to minimise our carbon footprint. This eco-conscious consumerism can be seen in the car industry as well, with many buyers choosing electric vehicles over their ‘dirty’ petrol or diesel counterparts in the belief that such choices will help create a cleaner planet. In reality, however, the picture of the electric car is not as green as many in the industry would have you believe.
The romance of the electric car
There is no argument that some fundamental changes are taking place in the car industry. Total car sales are falling, due to a combination of higher taxes for ‘dirty’ vehicles, lack of trust in manufacturers following successive emissions scandals, as well as lower rates of car ownership among Millennials and Generation Z’s. In addition, due to growing concerns over the environmental impact of cars, as well as a move towards home-working in the wake of the social and economic remodelling wrought by Covid-19, an increasing number of cities are introducing or expanding low-emissions zones and pedestrian areas, making it less attractive to own a car in such areas.
One sector that is bucking these trends is the electric car. Despite some significant downsides — long charging times, limited range, and a general lack of charging points outside major urban developments — car buyers are making the switch to electric cars in droves. According to The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, electric cars have seen a massive 228.8% jump in sales in comparison to 2018. Part of this trend is down to economics — despite generally higher purchase prices, buyers view electric cars as cheaper to run over the lifetime of the car, especially given the volatile trends in the oil industry over the past couple of years that are set to continue into the future. An equally important consideration for many consumers is the environmental impact of their vehicles, as electric cars are seen as a clear winner over petrol, diesel and even hybrid cars in this regard, given that they do not have combustion engines that spew dirty particulates and greenhouse gasses into the air.
The dirty secrets of electric cars
While electric cars certainly have their upsides from an environmental point of view, emissions are not the only measure of eco-friendliness, and if we do a bit of digging, we find that electric cars are not as green as they may make out.
For starters, even though there have been noticeable strides towards diversifying electricity generation, 60% of the UK’s electricity needs are still being met by fossil fuels. So even though electric cars may seem like a green choice in the sense that the vehicles themselves do not produce any harmful emissions, their electric motors still disproportionately rely on dirty sources of electricity for their juice. In addition, global investment in renewables is slowing down, which means that a complete switch to clean energy in most countries is off the cards for the short to medium term.
Furthermore, the lithium ion batteries that electric cars rely on to store their juice are far from environmentally friendly. First, lithium is a metal, which means that it is has to be extracted by mining, which is far from an environmentally friendly process. The mining process not only devastates large tracts of land, but it also requires insane amounts of water. Since the majority of the world’s lithium reserves are located in the arid regions of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile (regions that are already struggling with droughts), relentless mining in order to feed our rechargeable battery addiction is only exacerbating these countries’ water supply problems. In addition, the process of refining lithium into a useable form requires even more water, and results in toxic chemicals that leech into the local water supply, affecting fish and other wildlife hundreds of miles downstream. Finally, lithium loses its ability to recharge over time (the current lifetime of a battery of an electric car is approximately 8 years, or 100,000 miles). And while batteries can be recycled, many waste management companies are choosing not to do so, given that it is not a cost-effective enterprise, with the result that the majority of the millions of tonnes of disposed batteries end up in landfills around the world, further contributing to environmental degradation.
Finally, we need to consider the manufacturing process, both of which are far from polar bear friendly. Making a car requires a host of computers, machines, tools, and robots, all of which consume vast amounts of electricity (which, we have seen, is still largely generated from fossil fuels). Many components of electric cars (such as tires, interior plastic trims and the foam inside seats) are derived from fossil fuels, and the ‘just in time’ manufacturing process employed by most car makers means that parts made in disparate locations around the world need to be shipped (by air, sea or truck) to central factories for assembly. These factors combined mean that building an electric car actually leaves a larger carbon footprint than a traditional fuel guzzling vehicle (8.8 tonnes of CO2 vs. 5.6 tonnes).
What next for electric cars?
Does all this mean that we should avoid electric cars and stick to the traditional combustion engine? Not necessarily…
Tesla has recently announced a new ‘tabless’ battery that not only significantly increases the range of their electric cars, but also decreases their cost relative to their less eco-friendly cousins. If they are successful, then the company hopes that they can catalyse a large-scale switch to electric cars, which can have a significant impact on air quality in towns and cities. But what is really exciting from an environmental standpoint, is that Tesla hopes to make significant changes to the traditional battery manufacturing process that would not only save space on the factory floor, but would also save significantly on energy costs.
In addition, recognising the growing demand for electric cars, and the corresponding problem of what to do with discarded lithium batteries, both the EU and Australia have announced initiatives that are encouraging private businesses to invest in and improve the recycling process to make battery manufacturing more sustainable over the long term.
Finally, the disruption wrought by Covid-19 to international trade earlier this year has prompted many companies to consider shifting to a more locally sourced and locally produced business model. While the impetus for this is driven more by local job creation, it also has the added environmental benefit of reducing the emissions produced by shipping parts and materials internationally.
Overall, therefore, the future of electric cars is looking greener than it did in the lead-up to Covid-19, and they may still become an environmentally viable alternative to gasoline-powered cars in the near future.