They’ve been made trendy thanks to Tesla. But are electric cars really greener?
By Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi
Since the lockdowns started around the world in 2020 due to the pandemic, millions of people noticed something. The air quality in most cities vastly improved. This was obviously due to extreme cuts in industrial activities, as well as a reduction in the use of personal cars.
Desperate to retain the clean air benefits of the quarantine, several eco-pundits have been insisting that now is the time to start phasing out diesel and petrol fuelled cars in favour of electric ones.
Electric cars certainly carry many benefits. They’re quieter on the roads, reducing noise pollution. They don’t produce smog-forming pollutants, reducing air pollution. If you chose to take automatic driving lessons instead of more complicated manual ones, you’ll be pleased to know that electric cars only have one gear.
In most cases, despite the initial higher cost of buying the car, electric cars save you money in the long run. This is mainly because domestic electricity is a lot cheaper than petrol or diesel. They also don’t need to be serviced as often as conventional cars today do.
But are electric cars really greener?
The supporters of electric vehicles (EVs) have sustained that since the Nineties, there was an attempt to push these cars in the market, but that they received strong opposition from automobile manufacturers, the oil industry, and federal governments that feared of having their businesses comprised by vehicles that would not require fossil based fuels.
As a matter of fact, American filmmaker and environmental activist, Chris Paine in 2006 released a documentary called Who Killed The Electric Car?, which explored the limited commercialisation and disappearance on the market of the battery electric vehicle in the United States, specifically the General Motors EV1 of the mid-1990s.
While there may well have been such a conspiracy to save the oil and car industry from change, it doesn’t necessarily mean that EVs are better for the planet than conventional cars. Here’s why.
Are Electric Cars Really Greener?
Recent studies have demonstrated that electric cars are equally hazardous to the environment, if not more so, than diesel cars. This has been corroborated by Christoph Buchal of the University of Cologne, who revealed that electric vehicles have “significantly higher CO2 emissions than diesel cars,” due to the large amount of energy used in the mining and processing of lithium, cobalt, and manganese, all of which are critical raw materials for the production of electric car batteries.
Furthermore, German researchers criticised the fact that EU legislators have classified electric cars as being zero-emission vehicles. This is a deception, because electric cars actually produce more emissions than the diesel vehicles. The reason? Well, when you plug in your EV, it charges based on electricity. And that electricity has to come from somewhere. Right now in the world, most energy is still produced by coal. So sure, your EV may not be emitting fumes on the street – but plugging it in is creating some serious air pollution elsewhere!
But that’s not the only reason why the answer to the question: are electric cars really greener? is NO.
Environmentally Hazardous Components
Electric vehicles use a number of rare earth metals in their design, such as neodymium, which is used to make very strong magnets. What is detrimental about sourcing this element is that it generates thorium contamination. This is a radioactive element found in the metals that can seriously negatively affect the surrounding environment. This rare metal can be found also in headphones, smartphones and electric motors.
At the beginning of 2019, Tesla became one of several electric car makers to use motors with neodymium magnets, installing them in its Tesla Model 3. The electric car company imported over four million pounds of automotive parts from Taiwan and China. The latter is where more than 80 percent of the world’s neodymium is produced. According to the Chinese Association of Rare Earths, between 9,600 and 12,000 cubic metres of waste in the form of a gas containing concentrated dust, hydrofluoric acid, sulphur dioxide, and sulphuric acid, are expelled for each tonne of extracted rare-earth elements.
Furthermore, the making of batteries for electric vehicles involves a great deal of mining to process lithium, cobalt, and manganese. In real terms, this means it takes twice the amount of energy to manufacture an electric car than a conventional one. Indeed, a new IVL report commissioned by the Swedish Energy Agency, which investigates climate emissions associated with electric car battery manufacturing, has revealed that, “production of lithium-ion batteries on average emits somewhere between 61-106 kilos of carbon dioxide equivalents per kilowatt-hour battery capacity produced.”
The Human Cost
Not only is the environment is at risk with the extraction of these exotic materials, but so are those who are mining these harmful elements needed to build electric cars. Quite often, the employees behind EV batteries are child miners living in Congo.
In the Katanga mines, the regular wage is of just 8p a day, and the children’s job requires them to check the rocks for streaks of cobalt — a crucial material that is essential for the batteries that power electric cars. This extraction is carried out by underaged workers, without protective clothing or modern tools.
As a consequence, these children can end up buried in the rubble of collapsed tunnels. Furthermore the proximity to cobalt has affected miners with the so called “Cobalt Lung,” a respiratory disease similar to pneumonia which causes coughing and leads to permanent incapacity and even death.
Each year, 40,000 children risk their lives and health, for our alleged “clean energy,” since manufacturers of electric vehicles procure their cobalt from the impoverished central African state, where 60 per cent of the planet’s reserves are located.
Additionally, lithium is needed for the batteries of electric cars. The greatest source for this right now is in Bolivia.
On July 24 of this year, Tesla’s Elon Musk received this tweet from someone on Twitter:
“You know what wasn’t in the best interest of people? The US government organising a coup against Evo Morales in Bolivia so you could obtain the lithium there.”
Musk then wrote: “We will coup whoever we want! Deal with it.”
Musk claimed his tweet (now deleted), was a ‘joke’. But the truth is that President Evo Morales was removed from his office in November 2019 in a coup. Many said this was because he wanted to keep Bolivia’s lithium supply for the people of that nation.
Musk, however, has long wanted cheap access to the large lithium deposits in Bolivia since it’s the key ingredient for Tesla’s batteries. Earlier this year, Musk revealed that he wanted to build a Tesla factory in Brazil, which would get its lithium from Bolivia. It seems that lithium is the ‘new oil’ – poor countries that are rich in it have their democracies and stability threatened by it.
In addition to the environmental and social horrors caused by the production of electric cars, these vehicles are economically unsustainable. They are incredibly expensive to buy and only a small segment of the population can afford them. Average prices are currently around double that of a gas vehicle. No wonder car leasing is the most popular option for those who are interested in electric vehicles.
Moreover, the batteries of EVs run out quickly. When you plug in your electric vehicle, it can take from 30 minutes to more than 12 hours to charge, depending on the battery and the speed of the charging point. A typical electric car (60kWh battery) takes just under 8 hours to charge from empty-to-full with a 7kW charging point.
Manufacturers guarantee that the EV batteries last from 8 to 10 years. But if you do the maths, it doesn’t add up. The number of charge and discharge cycles are usually around 600 before the battery dies. Therefore, if you’re charging your EV every day the battery won’t even last two years: 365 days in a year times 2 is equal to 730 cycles. According to my calculations, if you charge your EV daily, the battery will only last around a year and 7 months! And did I mention the battery is usually the most expensive part of the car?
In order to reduce CO2 emissions, the European Union passed a carbon dioxide regulation that went into effect on April 17th, 2019. It decreed that from 2030 onwards, European carmakers must have achieved average vehicle emissions of just 59 grams of CO2 per km. This corresponds to fuel consumption of 2.2 litres of diesel equivalent per 100 km. This is impossible for your average fossil fuel based car to achieve at the moment. In other words, by 2030, all European-made cars will likely be electric.
The UK government has essentially decreed the same situation by banning the sale of diesel and gasoline cars by 2035.
These laws seem ridiculous when you consider that current studies don’t demonstrate that fossil fuelled cars are more polluting than electric vehicles.
For instance, Professor Hans-Werner Sinn and physicist Christoph Buchal published a paper showing that: “in the context of Germany’s energy mix, an EV emits a bit more CO2 than a modern diesel car, even though its battery offers drivers barely more than half the range of a tank of diesel.”
Several other studies, following this paper have confirmed this thesis. These include data published by Volkswagen. explaining that its e-Rabbit vehicle actually emits slightly more CO2 than its Rabbit Diesel! In addition, findings by Austrian think tank Joanneum Research shows that a mid-sized electric passenger car in Germany must drive 219,000 km before it starts outperforming the corresponding diesel car in terms of CO2 emissions.
Seeking Lesser Evils
Considering the limitations of electric vehicles, researchers worldwide are exploring the potential of hydrogen fuel cell technology. This combines hydrogen and oxygen to convert power into electrical energy, without creating any emissions other than water vapour. Prominent automotive companies such as BMW and Toyota are currently developing hydrogen-powered cars.
Although the technology is promising, the hydrogen car still needs work. It’s hard to recharge at the moment, and it’s not affordable for the masses. But there is some good news on the horizon! According to researchers at the University of Waterloo in Canada, eventual advancements in such fuel cell technology will make them much cheaper compared to traditional gasoline engines in vehicles. Eventually, they will be more commercially viable – and eco-friendlier than EVs – when mass produced.
So, are electric cars really greener? The clear answer is: NO. They take just as much energy as petrol vehicles, but from different sources. It will cost billions of dollars and CO2 to create new charging points around cities. And let’s not forget the wastage of all the cars that will soon be banned in Europe and the UK!
Pushing electric cars on we, the people, through legislation is unfair, costly, and will generate incredible amounts of waste. It’s nothing but a greenwash.
While it’s fine to buy an electric car if you wish, it’s false to think they’re greener than petrol cars. This is especially true when we consider the intensive mining that’s necessary to make their batteries.
Ultimately, if you really want to go 100% green, travelling by public transport is probably the best solution.