Are Electric Cars Really Greener?
Are electric cars (EC) really greener and eco-friendly? They seem to be a great solution to fight climate change and they are even said to have zero emissions. But are they worth it? Is it true that they are harmless to the planet?
Said António Guterres, the Secretary-General the United Nations, in May 2018. But he’s not standing alone. From the IPCC to NASA, WWF or CDP, all these important entities agree on this phenomena’s spin-off and are committed to fighting it.
From the loss of sea ice and the increase in sea levels to the occurrence of extreme events such as hurricanes, droughts or intensive heat waves, it’s hard to deny the dimension of what we are fighting here. And there’s more to come if we reach the temperature increase of 2° Celsius.
In an attempt to minimize these consequences, scientists have been looking into what may be the main causes of climate change. They found out that greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, methane or nitrous oxide, and aerosols are changing the atmosphere and leaving the planet more exposed.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) pointed out that of the 49 Gt Co2 eq released into the atmosphere in 2010, 14% was released by transportation vehicles. And despite being already a big number, this doesn’t even consider the Co2 impact of complementary activities such as manufacturing vehicles or getting road surfaces worn.
As cars make up 72% of the Co2 emissions in this sector (followed by planes, with 10%), the market of electric cars has been growing and seems to be a good solution to fight climate change.
Are Electric Greener Than Fossil Fuel Powered Cars?
The fundamental difference between conventional, thermal cars and electric cars has to do with the process of transforming the potential (stored) energy into kinetic (movement) energy. In thermal cars, this energy is stored in a chemical form and is released through a chemical reaction inside the engine.
On the other hand, despite also having chemically stored energy, electric cars release it electrochemically without any kind of combustion, thanks to lithium-ion batteries. This means that there is no fuel being burned and therefore no air pollution through CO2 happening while driving. They are also more efficient than fossil cars. So is this a clear win for the electric movement? Are electric cars and vehicles greener?
Not necessarily. Or better said, not always. If the source of energy to power these cars doesn’t come from solar panels, wind turbines or even nuclear or hydroelectric, their CO2 emissions will be much higher. For instance, if the electricity used to charge cars comes from the burning of fossil fuels, it doesn’t matter if the EC are not polluting while being driven, as this pollution was already released in some distant power plant.
This means that if you’re driving an electric car in the US, where fossil fuels accounted 62,7% of the country’s energy production in 2017, you’ll probably release more CO2 into the atmosphere than if you’re driving it in Iceland, that runs almost entirely on hydro, geothermal and solar energy.
As for the UE28, forecasts are encouraging, being expected that the EU grid mix will come down from 300gCO2 eq/km in 2015 to 200gCO2 eq/km in 2030, and 80gCO2 eq/km in 2050. But let’s assume a scenario where cars are 100% powered with renewable or clean energy.
Where Do Electric Cars’ Batteries Go To? Are They Recycled In An Eco-Friendly Way?
In the conventional car industry, according to a study from the international council of clean transportation (ICCT), 99% of lead-acid batteries (the ones running in fossil fuel powered cars) are recycled in the US. This is not the case for the lithium-ion batteries that have a very specific mix of chemical components and little quantities of lithium, which doesn’t make them an appealing market opportunity. For instance, in the EU market, in 2011, only 5% of lithium was being collected and the rest was either incinerated or dumped in landfills (this specifically doesn’t make electric cars greener at all), as it was not justified by price or regulations to recover it by hydrometallurgical processes.
Nevertheless, the more batteries that are out there, since the electric cars market is growing, the more interesting it gets to try to figure out how to recycle them or recapture rare earth elements. So the chances are that a strong recycling industry for these batteries will keep developing and allowing electric cars to become greener.
Meanwhile, another solution might have to do with reusing these batteries and giving them a second life since they are able to support the electric grid of buildings and to store energy from wind or solar electricity sources. This would also help offset the environmental impacts of making the batteries in the first place since they are amortized over a longer period of time.