EVs are here – but will they really save our planet?

EVs are here – but will they really save our planet?

All over the world, car makers are ditching diesel and petrol-engined cars in favour of electric vehicles. But can these vehicles really save the planet? CHARLEEN CLARKE reports.

While electric vehicle (EV) adoption in South Africa is still in the starting blocks, they’re all the rage elsewhere. According to Pew Research Center – a nonpartisan fact tank based in the United States (US) that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping the world – the fastest growth in EV sales has been in Europe: a compound annual growth rate of 60% from 2016 to 2020, compared to increases of 36% in China and 17% in the US.

It reports that, last year, nearly three-quarters of all cars sold in Norway and more than half of those sold in Iceland were electric – by far the highest market shares for EVs in any of the 31 countries for which the International Energy Agency has collected data. In 10 other European countries, between a tenth and a third of all new cars sold last year were electric.

While there are several reasons for the increase in uptake – some motorists like the low running and energy costs while others are embracing innovation – the single most propelling reason that is emerging in survey after survey is this: those motorists want to save the planet.

What they fail to understand, though, is that their EV isn’t necessarily smiling on the environment. As Germany’s Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety notes, we can only establish the eco-friendliness of EVs after a comprehensive life cycle analysis. “This kind of analysis takes into account the whole vehicle life cycle, including the production of the individual components, the energy the vehicle needs in order to operate, the level of maintenance required and finally, its disposal,” it points out.

Batteries can be bad news

Let’s kick off with a particularly contentious issue: the production process. As we know, the production of any car – be it one with an internal combustion engine (ICE) or an EV – starts with raw materials being extracted. But, when it comes to carbon emissions, EVs are distinctly more damaging than their ICE counterparts. That’s thanks to the EVs’ batteries.

Unfortunately, batteries are produced using rare earth elements (REE) such as lithium, nickel, cobalt or graphite. These need to be mined – and mining isn’t always a “green” process. As Greenpeace notes, it’s also not necessarily an ethical process. Greenpeace points out that cobalt production, for instance, is linked to child labour in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The energy dilemma

The second part of the vehicle life cycle – the energy consumed – is very much dependent on where the EV is being driven. In a country such as Iceland, where hydro, geothermal and solar energy proliferate, that energy is as green as Kermit the frog. But, in South Africa, where energy is produced by burning coal, the exact opposite is true.

First-world countries are mindful of this situation and they’re working hard to change it. For instance, the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety reports that the proportion of renewable energy in the German electricity mix will continue to increase; according to the German government’s goal, it should be at least 65% by 2030. If other countries follow suit, EVs will become greener and greener.

In addition, it is important, when tackling the energy dilemma, to consider the efficiency of EVs. As Greenpeace notes: “Despite more than 100 years of refinements, the ICE used in cars just isn’t that good at converting fuel into movement. Even in the most efficient petrol engines, only around 12 to 30% of the energy in the fuel ever makes it to the wheels or other useful functions. The rest is wasted as noise and heat.

“Electric motors, by contrast, are more like 77% efficient – they get more than twice as many miles out of the same amount of energy. This efficiency gap is so big that even in Poland – where most electricity comes from coal-fired power stations – electric cars emit about 25% less carbon than their fossil-fuelled equivalents.”

Maintenance made simple

When it comes to maintenance, EVs have a clear advantage over their ICE counterparts. With an EV, it isn’t necessary to do those regular oil drainages, for instance. As the US Department of Energy notes, EVs typically require less maintenance than conventional vehicles because the battery, motor, and associated electronics require little to no regular maintenance while brake wear is significantly reduced due to regenerative braking. There are also far fewer moving parts relative to an ICE vehicle.

Dealing with disposal

While EVs are the undoubted winners in the maintenance debate, they fare rather woefully when it comes to the issue of disposal and, once again, it’s those batteries that are to blame. The challenge is what to do with them once they can no longer be used in the EV.

There are three options, and they all have their problems. The first is using them for some other purpose (other than powering an EV, which is particularly arduous). Consulting firm McKinsey believes that this could become a viable business. “Accordingly, we may see a rise in EV-battery leasing such that the automotive original equipment manufacturer (OEM) or battery OEM can maintain ownership of the battery’s second revenue stream,” it states. But this option obviously only works for as long as the battery does.

The second option is disposing of the battery. This is a very bad option; batteries can contaminate the surrounding soil in landfills.

The third is recycling – and it’s not without its challenges either. While the battery electrodes contain highly valued metals such as cobalt and nickel, it’s really tricky to dismantle batteries. In fact, it can be downright dangerous. It is, after all, a high voltage device and so special insulation tools as well as a high degree of prowess are needed. So, this is not the easiest way to deal with a predicted ever-growing pile of batteries from EVs either.

The way forward

Does this mean that EVs are doomed in future – from an environmental perspective? Definitely not. According to European clean transport campaign group Transport & Environment, to limit the global temperature rise to 1,5oC, car emissions must be zero by 2050 at the latest. That means we must be selling only electric cars – battery electric and hydrogen vehicles – in the early 2030s. “Road transport is Europe’s largest source of CO2 emissions. Cars are the biggest problem, and their emissions keep rising. To decarbonise, by far the most efficient and convenient zero-emission technology available to drivers across Europe today are battery-electric cars,” it notes. It goes on to say that a battery-electric car over its lifetime produces 50% less CO2 emissions than an average EU car today.

Greenpeace concurs: “Rapidly switching from fossil-fuelled cars and vans to electric vehicles is one of the most important things the government can do for the climate.”

So, there you have it. Are EVs saving the planet right now? No. But they could be pretty essential to its future survival.

Published by

Charleen Clarke

My friends call me a glomad (a global nomad lest you don’t get it). That’s a particularly apt word, because I am always trawling all corners of the globe, looking for stories. As a result, I have slept in some seriously strange places – on a bed of ice in the Arctic circle, on the floor in a traditional Japanese hotel, on the sand dunes in the Wadi Rum Desert in Jordan … and even on the floor of a Thai cargo ship. Mostly however I tend to sleep on aircraft (if I had a dog, he would bark at me when I eventually come home). I am passionate about trucks, cars, travel, food, wine, people and hugs – so I write about all these things. Except the hugs.
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