Automakers are pledging billions to develop supposedly eco-friendly electric cars, but their production isn’t carbon-free. How do they compare to ICE cars?
Carmakers are pledging billions to develop new battery electric vehicles (BEVs) with expectations that more than 30 million of them will be on European roads by 2030.
Electric cars may not generate tailpipe emissions, but vehicle manufacturing and batteries still contribute to carbon emissions.
So how clean are BEVs and how do they stack up against traditional internal combustion engine (ICE) cars that run on petrol or diesel?
What is the environmental impact of the BEV manufacturing process?
Life cycle emissions are those created by the production, use and disposal of a product; so for an electric car, everything from the raw materials and power sources of the battery to the recycling and reuse of the vehicle at the end of its life must be accounted for.
Mining, refining, transporting and manufacturing lithium-ion batteries is a very energy-intensive process, which means emissions are higher in the production phase of battery electric cars compared to ICE cars.
Although the manufacturing process for ICE cars may not be as high, it still has a significant carbon footprint.
Reuters reported earlier in the year that Volkswagen and Toyota were aiming to be carbon neutral by 2050, while Hyundai Motor Group said Hyundai Motor and Kia were “accelerating efforts” to become carbon neutral.
All new vehicles from Mercedes-Benz will be net carbon neutral along the entire value chain by 2039, and General Motors (GM) plans to be carbon neutral by 2040 in its global products and operations.
In contrast, Swedish company Polestar is ambitiously aiming to produce a net-zero car by 2030 by identifying and eliminating all carbon emissions, from raw material extraction through production to end-of-life treatment.
The carbon difference between BEVs and ICE cars may be significant when the car is first sold, but throughout its life on the road, ICE cars continue to emit CO2, while electric cars emit no emissions other than tire and brake particles.
According to research by Transport & Environment (T&E), the umbrella organization for European sustainability NGOs, the average electric car in the EU is nearly three times better in terms of carbon emissions than an equivalent petrol or diesel car – and this gap continues to widen. expanded.
The benefits of BEVs will only increase as the electricity grid becomes greener, but even a BEV powered in Poland with a battery made in China still emits 37 percent less CO2 than gasoline.
A reduction of 83 percent can be achieved with a battery electric car made in Sweden and driven in Sweden. They also predict that electric cars bought in 2030 will reduce CO2 emissions by a factor of four thanks to the EU’s electricity grid relying increasingly on renewables.
But what about the battery?
The raw materials used in the manufacture of batteries are one of the key factors in the price of BEVs and why they still remain more expensive than ICE equivalents.
As battery technology improves, new alternatives to standard lithium-ion chemistry will emerge. Potential alternatives to these raw materials are also being explored, such as the development of a new sodium-ion battery by CATL, a Chinese battery giant.
BYD, the world’s largest manufacturer of electrified vehicles, recognizes the importance of reducing the use of rare minerals in battery technology and its Blade Battery unit is produced without the use of cobalt.
In the meantime, more can be done to reduce the environmental impact of mining. Reinvesting profits into local communities to support education and training would provide opportunities that are too often unavailable to people in developing countries.
One important step in reducing the life cycle emissions of electric cars is recycling or reusing the battery.
The European Commission’s proposed battery regulation is the world’s first sustainable battery law, which seeks not only to ensure ethical mining techniques, but also to reduce the demand for mining by recycling raw materials more efficiently.
In July, the EU Council adopted a new regulation that establishes end-of-life requirements, including collection targets and obligations, material recovery targets and extended producer responsibility. This will go a long way in promoting a circular economy.
When reaching the end of their life in BEVs, the batteries may not be suitable for re-use in cars, but this creates a huge opportunity to reconfigure them for a ‘second life’ – including grid electricity storage – and thus reduce the overall production of batteries carbon footprint.
Another solution is to reuse what we already have, with scarcity of raw materials driving investment in battery recycling. However, the jury is still out on how environmentally or economically sustainable this will prove to be, as the recycling process also has a high carbon footprint.
There is strong evidence that over their lifetime BEVs create less carbon emissions than ICE cars and are therefore better for the environment.
More advanced battery technologies and manufacturing techniques will continue to improve the life of batteries, which will also lead to an extended life of electric vehicles.
Substantial challenges span the entire BEV life cycle, but it is worth remembering that the environmental impact of extracting oil for fuel is much greater.