How green are the electric vehicles?

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How green are the electric vehicles?

Wednesday, 20 September 2023 | Govind Bhattacharjee

How green are the electric vehicles?

Electric vehicles are not the ultimate solution for our environment. The solution lies in adjusting our lifestyles, consumption and mobility patterns

India has set an ambitious target of 30 per cent Electric Vehicle (EV) penetration in private cars, 70 per cent in commercial vehicles, and 80 per cent in two and three-wheelers by 2030. To achieve the targets, the Government is giving various incentives to buyers and manufacturers of EVs, including subsidies, tax relief etc. Across the world also, automakers are being prodded by their governments to promote the sale of EVs to fight climate change. But how green, truly, are the EVs? While EVs are more climate-friendly than our traditional cars driven by internal combustion engines (ICE), they are not free from their adverse impacts on the environment. Let me make it clear that this is not an article against EV which is the road to the future, but that road needs to be negotiated with caution, and not craze.

A vehicle’s impact on the environment can be judged by the totality of its impact on production, running and scrapping at the end of its useful life. Let us consider these stages one by one. As regards production, to assess the amount of greenhouse gases (GHGs) emitted during EV manufacture, we need to estimate how their components are made and where their raw materials are sourced from. While manufacturing an ICE car based on petrol or diesel or an EV without its battery releases about the same amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) - about 7 to 10 tonnes, it is the EV-battery production that adds significantly to the emission.

The battery is the heart of an EV, and about 150 kgs of CO2 are released to create every kilo-watt-hour (kWh) of battery capacity. An average EV consumes 0.20 kWh per km, and for an EV to have a decent range (say 300 km) between charges, it needs a battery capacity of 60kWh, which means additional CO2- emission of 9 tonnes, which makes an EV almost twice as environment-unfriendly as an ICE-car. Making EVs thus evidently creates more emissions, and improving technology is the only solution. Also, while the EVs don’t emit toxic exhaust fumes, their batteries can emit toxic fumes, if damaged.

The raw materials for the battery have to be mined, and the process of mining, refining and transportation also adds a lot of GHGs. The raw materials include rare earth materials like lithium, and neodymium, besides copper, cobalt, aluminium, nickel and also manganese and graphite. The rare earth materials are available only in a few countries. Lithium, the third element in the periodic table of elements, is lighter compared to other elements used in batteries like lead and has an extra electron in its outermost shell which increases power flow through the cell.

While Australia is currently the largest supplier of lithium, the ‘lithium triangle’ of Bolivia, Chile and Argentina accounts for half the total global reserves. But it is China that controls 77 per cent of the global lithium-ion battery manufacturing capacity and is home to six of the world’s 10 largest manufacturing companies. India currently imports all of its lithium from Australia and Argentina and 70 per cent of its lithium-ion cell requirements from China. The recent discovery of large lithium reserves in Rajasthan and Jammu may catapult India to become a major producer of the element in future. 

Mining lithium is hazardous and leads to the emission of significant amounts of GHGs. Further, extraction of every tonne of lithium requires 500,000 litres of water, and lithium mining can pollute the air and water with chemicals and heavy metals. A 2019 study shows that 40 per cent of the adverse climatic impact from the production of lithium-ion batteries comes from the mining process itself. It is indeed a paradox that the clean energy of EVs can come only from dirty mining. Another metal used extensively in EV batteries is cobalt, of which 70 per cent of the world’s reserves are in the Democratic Republic of Congo - one the poorest countries in the world and a failed state. Its mining is akin to modern-day slavery which is not limited to adult men and women only – children as young as four are often forced to work as slaves to extract cobalt with nothing other than primitive hand-held tools; in fact, they grow as slaves into adulthood while still mining lithium in a never-ending loop through generations. Scarcity of the rare earth elements will limit the transition to EVs across the world unless technology brings a solution. There are also geopolitical issues associated with their extraction. The alternatives suggested like green hydrogen or biofuels are equally unviable – 99 per cent of the world’s hydrogen is still produced from fossil fuels and increasing biofuel production may compromise the area available for food production.

But the most important factor is that EVs are only as green as their power sources. Their environmental impact depends on how the electricity that charges them is made, and these are not green, as of now, in most countries. The share of coal in electricity production varies from 20 per cent in the USA to 63 per cent in China and 73 per cent in India. A coal-fired power station emits about 800 grammes of CO2 per kWh, while renewable sources like solar panels or wind turbines emit only 36 grammes. The solution thus lies in greening the electricity grid, and there is a long way to go for that. Till then, switching to EVs will only add to GHGs in our atmosphere. Emissions will drop only when we make our grids zero-carbon.

At present it is a mix of renewable and non-renewable sources, and this energy mix used to recharge EV batteries strongly impacts their carbon footprint. The net negative impact of EVs today is greater for coal-intensive countries like India, China or Poland compared to the ICE cars. EVs will become an attractive option only with the gradual decarbonisation of electricity. Only six countries – China, the USA, Japan, Canada, Norway, and the UK – now have EV market shares above one per cent of the total vehicle sales. A Thomson-Reuters study projects the best scenario that by 2040, half of the vehicles on the road will still be powered by fossil fuels, but all new vehicles sold will be EVs only. While it will significantly reduce CO2 emission by almost 40 per cent, it will also lead to much-increased demand for electricity to power these EVs – an additional electricity generation of 3,000 terawatt hours would be needed by 2050 to meet that demand.

To put that figure in perspective, the EU today generates a total of 3,200 terawatt hours. Imagine the renewable and non-renewable sources that will have to be tapped - and their carbon footprints - to power the global fleet of future EVs, not to talk about the huge additional investments needed. Disposal of these batteries also poses a threat to the climate. Though they contain less toxic waste than other batteries and have much longer lives, a study from Australia found that 98 per cent of them end up in landfills, increasing the chances of landfill fires that can burn for years; these are now becoming increasingly more common.

For our environment, EVs are thus not the ultimate solution. The solution lies in adjusting our lifestyles, consumption and mobility patterns. Limiting the production of new EVs means promoting alternatives like walking, cycling, public transport, carpools shared vehicles, etc. with the same urgency that we are today showing towards EVs. We must employ all the levers, technological and non-technological - to shift to sustainable mobility and a sustainable world.

(The writer, a former Director General at the Office of the Comptroller & Auditor General of India, is currently a Professor at the Arun Jaitley Institute of Financial Management; views expressed are personal)

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