By: Emily Untermeyer
Image courtesy of Unsplash
The growing emphasis on sustainability across the globe has manifested in part in a determination to lower emissions from fossil fuels. Cars, buses, and other gasoline-powered transportation made up 27% of total emissions in the United States in 2020, so it’s not surprising that emission-free electric vehicles (EVs) are at the forefront of movements to create a more sustainable world. President Biden’s infrastructure plan, for example, prioritizes EVs as an integral step towards zero net emissions for the US by 2050, while states such as California, Colorado, and Massachusetts have instituted policies prohibiting new gas-powered vehicles from being sold as early as 2035. In the automotive industry, large brands such as GM and BMW have committed to 100% EV production by 2035 and 50% EV production by 2030, respectively.
The EPA has determined that EVs have a smaller carbon footprint than gasoline-powered cars, even after including the impacts of charging and manufacturing an EV. With that being said, how an EV is charged and manufactured is very important when calculating the vehicle’s overall sustainability. If the electricity used to power the EV comes from coal power plants, the vehicle is still causing carbon emissions and general air pollution. When that electricity comes from renewable sources such as wind and solar, however, charging the EV becomes very environmentally friendly. Currently, only 38% of the global electricity production comes from renewable sources – but that represents a 42% increase in the last decade, so the world is on the right track. Regardless, an EV charged by the average US power grid is still more environmentally friendly than a gas-powered car because the grid uses a combination of renewable and nonrenewable energy.
The largest concern regarding the manufacturing of EVs revolves around the lithium-ion batteries frequently used to power the vehicle. The raw materials required for the battery include cobalt and lithium, both of which have been linked to major environmental and human rights concerns while being mined. This is a very important issue that must be addressed before EVs can be considered fully “green.” Moreover, there is no organized or sustainable end-of-life procedure for the batteries in the US, which is a problem when considering that 12 million tons of the batteries will be removed from vehicles between now and 2030. There is research ongoing on how to recycle the batteries, including deconstructing them to remove and reuse the materials inside, but current designs make deconstruction difficult and potentially dangerous. Another end-of-life option for the batteries is reuse as storage for power grids, which could add a decade to their lives. Ultimately, car manufacturers, suppliers of raw materials, and recycling companies will need to work together to create a solution that eradicates any negative environmental and human consequences of EVs to fully capitalize on their sustainable possibilities.
Consumer hesitation about EVs is due in part to logistical concerns like charging and meeting long-distance travel requirements. According to the EPA, however, recent developments in EV technology means that electric cars have more than enough range to meet the daily travel needs of the average US household, and there are over 45,000 public charging stations available nationwide. Although more charging stations will be necessary to make long-distance travel by EVs fully accessible, we are well on our way to making EVs a safe, reliable, sustainable form of transportation that can supplant the use of gasoline-powered cars.
If you would like to see the climate impacts of different car models, this interactive tool from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology integrates factors such as manufacturing and how much gasoline is burned.