Many countries worldwide have promoted electric vehicles (EVs) as less-polluting versions of gasoline-powered cars. Alongside this, many studies have also emerged that said EVs actually produce more pollution. However, a new paper defending EVs said they emit far less emissions than traditional vehicles.
The July 2021 paper from the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) claimed that battery-powered EVs “have by far the lowest life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions.” It arrived at this claim by looking at the four most relevant powertrain types. These included internal-combustion engine vehicles, including hybrid electric ones; plug-in hybrid electric vehicles; battery electric vehicles and fuel cell electric vehicles.
The ICCT report also looked a number of fuel types and power sources such as gasoline, diesel, natural gas, biofuels, e-fuels, hydrogen and electricity. Alongside its earlier finding, the report discovered that only electric vehicles powered by batteries and hydrogen fuel cells “have the potential to achieve the magnitude of lifecycle [greenhouse gas] emissions reductions needed to meet Paris Agreement goals.”
Light-duty vehicles such as passenger cars were responsible for the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions from the transport sector. The ICCT’s assessment found that life-cycle emissions of battery EVs in other areas worldwide were already lower than their gasoline-powered counterparts. It showed a 66 to 69 percent difference in Europe, a 60 to 68 percent difference in the U.S., a 37 to 45 percent difference in China and a 19 to 34 percent difference in India.
The ICCT’s findings put forward significant implications for policymakers striving to decarbonize road transport by 2050 in line with the Paris Agreement. It noted that taking the average 15- to 18-year lifespan of passenger cars into consideration, “the benefits of a decarbonized power sector in 2050 can only be captured in full … if the [battery EV] transition is complete for new sales by the early 2030s.”
The ICCT’s report also called on the power sector to implement decarbonization efforts at the soonest. “It is important that a global transition to [battery EVs] occurs alongside the decarbonization of the power sector, and without any delay in expectation of power sector improvements,” it said.
The report claimed EVs powered by batteries and hydrogen fuel cells have the lowest amount of greenhouse gas emissions among other vehicle power sources. Aside from this, the report showed that emissions from manufacturing batteries, solar panels and wind turbines were miniscule compared to the overall greenhouse gas reductions once they were finished.
However, an August 2020 report by Watts Up With That pointed out that manufacturing an EV itself already emitted about half of its lifetime carbon dioxide (CO2) emission. Meanwhile, manufacturing an average gasoline powered car only accounted for 17 percent of its lifetime CO2 emissions. Putting it into perspective, making an EV emitted 30,000 pounds of CO2 in the atmosphere. On the other hand, making a conventional car only emitted 14,000 pounds of CO2 – almost half the amount from its electric counterpart. (Related: The truth about “clean” electric vehicles: Here’s what tech giants like Tesla are not telling you.)
The article noted: “If an EV is driven 50,000 miles over its lifetime, the huge initial emissions from its manufacture means [it] will actually have put more [CO2] in the atmosphere than a similar-sized gasoline-powered car driven the same number of miles.” Driving the EV for 90,000 miles and charging it at recharging hubs powered by natural gas will amount to only a 24 percent lower CO2 emission than a gasoline-powered vehicle, it added.
Furthermore, the article noted that the mining and processing of raw materials for EV batteries causes more environmental damage. These materials included rare toxic metals such as lithium, neodymium and cobalt. According to University of Cambridge professor emeritus Michael Kelly, demand for EVs would easily consume the supplies of these raw materials in known reserves if the world goes for electric cars.
True enough, a June 2021 Guardian op-ed revealed that the demand for lithium to be used in EVs has threatened the Atacama Desert in Chile. Providence College professor Thea Riofrancos wrote in her piece that the Atacama salt flats in the desert hold most of the world’s lithium reserves. However, she pointed out that the mining operations came with a huge cost.
Riofrancos wrote that the lithium extraction process, which uses up large quantities of water, deprived indigenous communities in Atacama of fresh water. The operations also disrupted the habitats of various animal species in the area such as Andean flamingoes. Wildlife and communities were unfortunately sacrificed in the name of lower carbon emissions. (Related: Op-ed: Increased lithium demand for electric vehicle batteries comes with a price.)