The production of batteries and the extraction of the critical metals causes an environmental impact on manufacturing electric cars

The production of batteries and the extraction of the critical metals causes an environmental impact on manufacturing electric cars

Green  |  Transports  |  Sustainability

Electric or fossil fuel car: here is which really pollutes less

Let there be no doubt: even in the worst-case scenario an electric car already has 30 per cent less impact than an equivalent petrol or diesel. And things are bound to improve

Sales figures and new regulations show how the automotive scenario is set to change dramatically over the next ten years. 2.3 million electric cars were sold in Europe in 2021, an increase of 66 per cent compared to 2020. Those registered in Europe are one third of the global total, 6.6 million, a figure that has doubled year on year. The European Union is also one of the areas where the phase-out of fossil-fuelled cars will come first: the date has now been set for 2035. However, the growth of the market and the tightening of legal constraints have been accompanied by a series of doubts: what if the electric car is not so environmentally friendly? It is fair to address the topic, data in hand. The shadows are there, especially regarding the production of the key component, batteries, and the extraction of the critical metals of which it is made up. 

The starting summary is: if we compare the electric car to not having a car at all (and moving around for example using only public transport or cycling), the electric car is a climate loser. But if we compare the electric car to petrol or diesel cars, the advantage for ecology and climate is gigantic. According to comprehensive research by the NGO Transport&Environment, the electric car is three times better for the Earth's future (on average) than a petrol car bought in the same year (2020 is used as a benchmark). The gap will then widen as the electricity that powers the battery becomes cleaner: according to current scenarios for the growth of renewable energy sources in the EU, by 2040 the electric car will be four times less impactful than diesel/petrol. Here we touch on the first key concept: the sustainability of electric cars depends on how the energy that produces or charges them is produced. It is different to drive one in the most carbon-intensive country in Europe (Poland) or in one heavily powered by renewables. 

To date, the worst-case scenario for the electric car is for the battery to be produced in China, in coal-fired factories with no circular economy of raw materials, and for it to be used in Poland: even in this scenario, which is undesirable but all in all realistic, the climate performance is significantly better than the petrol or diesel equivalent: 30 per cent less impact. If we instead consider the most virtuous scenario, i.e. driving the electric car in an energy-clean system, performance is already five times cleaner. In an average scenario (which roughly corresponds to that of Italy), an electric car pays back its 'carbon debt' (the emissions caused by the production of the car and battery) within a year, and saves more than 30 tonnes of CO₂ over its entire life cycle. For a high-mileage shared vehicle (e.g. a taxi), the saving can even amount to 85 tonnes of CO₂ in the life cycle, when compared to diesel. 

To summarise. A medium-sized electric car purchased in Europe in 2020 will have about 20 tonnes of CO₂ emissions over its lifetime, considered from when its production starts until it is scrapped. A diesel car, at the same time, will have emitted 53 tonnes of CO₂ at the time of decommissioning. One petrol car, 57 tonnes of CO₂. In the virtuous scenario par excellence (battery produced with green energy, recharged in a system powered by renewables) the overall impact of the electric car will be 11 tonnes of CO₂, almost six times less than its petrol-powered competitor.

The electric car is therefore already more sustainable today. To continue to diminish its impact, two issues are crucial: one internal to the industry and one external. The external one is the decarbonisation of the electricity grids: a reduction plan such as the European Union's (55 per cent less emissions within eight years) will allow cars to be cleaner. The theme within the industry, on the other hand, is the transition to more sustainable batteries. Many of the crucial key metals have a serious ecological impact, like lithium, due to its water-thirsty extraction (in fact, Europe has been plagued by protests against new mines in recent years) or cobalt, which is also linked to serious problems of human rights violations. 

Technological research will give us a hand, making it possible to change the metallurgical 'dosages' of batteries and reduce less sustainable components (such as cobalt). However, the real key to a more ecologically and human rights compatible battery is circular economy. The European Commission is in fact working on a battery regulation that will be the European model to counter the Chinese dominance: a mandatory (yet to be determined) quota of metals from disused batteries will be reused. This step will help drastically reduce their ecological footprint. However, it will take a decade: by the time the market has come full circle, the first generations of cars will be disposed of. In 2030, 400,000 tonnes of batteries will reach the end of their life cycle and will be discarded. Then the circular economy will be triggered. It will be Europe's true entry into the clean car era: five years later the last petrol car will be sold.

Ferdinando Cotugno - He is a reporter born in Naples. Now he lives in Milan and deals with sustainability, environment, and the climate crisis. He writes for Vanity Fair, GQ, Linkiesta, Rivista Studio, Undici and the newspaper Domani, for which he also edited the Areale newsletter. In 2020 he published for Mondadori Italian Wood, a journey to discover the Italian woods, and leads the podcast Ecotoni with Luigi Torreggiani.

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