Editor’s note: This article was originally written on 3/17/2020. Given the dynamic environment we are living in right now, we are unsure what information might have changed since this article was written. However, there has been a lot of news about Tesla reopening its plant in California. Production of electric vehicles may soon be increasing. I hope you will think about the questions raised in this article before making your next car purchase.
A lot of push advertising from electric vehicle manufacturers will have you believe that their cars are fantastic for the environment, get you to purchase a brand-new Model ‘XYZ’, and what’s more, you get to feel good about yourself.
Don’t electric vehicles have a zero-carbon footprint during operation? They sure do. So aren’t they truly wonderful for the environment? I wouldn’t exactly go that far. From a lifecycle analysis perspective (right from procurement of raw materials to the graveyard of old cars) they are more likely shifting pollution rather than significantly reducing it.
While electric vehicles still come out ahead of conventional gasoline models, I think it’s still important to have a look at exactly the kind of environmental impact the decision to buy a shiny new EV really is.
Let’s start with what makes an EV truly different from an conventional car; it’s battery. The main component of the battery of major EVs is lithium nickel manganese cobalt oxide (NCM), and its drivetrain consists of four kinds of rare-earth magnets (Neodymium (NdFeB), Ceramic (Ferrite), Samarium Cobalt (SmCo) and AlNiCo).
Now how exactly does one extract these rare minerals from the soil? In Jiangxi, China, since these minerals are found in small quantities in nature, workers dig huge holes in the ground and pour in ammonium sulphate, then pass the soil through various acid baths in order to separate rare-earth minerals from the soil. The minerals, around 0.2% of the soil (in mineral rich soils) is collected, and the rest 99.8%, now contaminated with toxic chemicals and acids is poured back into the ground. While relating the environmental impact of this process to a carbon footprint may not be the best comparison, I think the fact that this environmental damage is severe, far-reaching and long term is obvious.
Cobalt, one of the core components of the NCM battery, is used extensively not only in EVs but also smartphones and computers. 60% of the global supply comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a country infamous for its lack of human rights and abuse of child labor.
When advanced economies push for the change to EVs and the demand for such minerals and metals skyrockets, how do you think the demand will be met? The environment cannot sustain human greed, nor can the exploited children and laborers of developing nations. With building pressure to meet the demand of consumer economies, the atrocities against the environment are bound to increase.
Lastly, what happens to these batteries when the car is old and needs to be taken off the roads. While the amount of rare-earth minerals used in present consumer electronics is small, making is “economically unfeasible” to recycle, EVs use them in large quantities. Hopefully, we come up with a way to re-use the material, but the present lifecycle analysis looks bleak.
I haven’t even begun to talk about the issue of electricity generation. If the electricity where you live is generated by coal, or petroleum, which then reaches the drive train of your car via several energy losses along the way, I don’t have to tell you that the carbon footprint is not zero, or even lesser than using gasoline in your car.
Again, is buying a new EV better for the environment than buying a new conventional gasoline car? Yes, but not enough to pat yourself on the back. Those are both horrible choices to be making in the first place. The present world population cannot be sustained without strong public transport, avoiding personal vehicles wherever possible, and at the very least, carpooling.