Will EVs Have a Real Impact on the Environment?

Priscilla ValdezNovember 19, 2021

The world is quickly turning to electric vehicles as a solution to combatting climate change. It makes sense as transportation is the largest contributor of CO2 emissions, making up about one-fifth of global emissions each year. Governments around the world are increasingly pushing for electrification with incentives for consumers and manufacturers, which are proving fruitful as global EV sales are projected to reach an 83 percent year-over-year increase by the end of 2021.

This is great news as we begin to phase out dated, carbon intensive activities for more sustainable practices in all different areas. It is worth questioning, however, just how environmentally friendly EVs are. While they tend to be the go-to green solution due to their zero-emissions claims, how valid are these statements? As the forecasted number of EV sales continues to climb –with nearly half of passenger cars sold by 2030 expected to be EVs– it is worth digging into the good and the bad of how these vehicles are impacting our environment.

How do they compare with traditional, ICE vehicles?

Though electric vehicles have not been on the road long enough to fully understand their lifetime benefits, the research available shows promising results. In just about a year, one EV can save an average of 1.5 million grams of CO2 compared to an ICE vehicle of similar size. With an increase of EVs on the road, this number will quickly add up to an impactful figure.

Similarly, it’s tricky to gauge just how sustainable an electric vehicle is, because it only really becomes a greener option than ICE vehicles after spending a decent amount of time on the road. This is due to the carbon intensive manufacturing of EVs that is eventually offset by a lack of tailpipe emissions throughout the vehicle’s lifetime. For example, a Tesla Model 3 only becomes more environmentally sustainable than a gas-powered Toyota Corolla after it has spent 13,500 miles on the road.

Weak points in EV sustainability

Despite promising zero tailpipe emissions, electric vehicles have a long way to go in cleaning up the manufacturing process.

The manufacturing process

The manufacturing of electric vehicles, or more specifically their batteries, is the most energy-intensive aspect of electrification. EVs run on rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that are made up of rare elements like cobalt, lithium, nickel and graphite. The mining of these elements requires vast amounts of electricity, water and manpower, resulting in high carbon emissions humanitarian concerns.

Additionally, as bigger vehicles are made and higher range is expected, larger batteries will inevitably be needed. Larger batteries will require greater amounts of raw elements, ultimately producing a greater carbon footprint. For now, this unclean process is considered a necessary evil in order to reap the lifetime benefits of driving emissions-free EVs. However, as we eventually shift our focus from mass electrification to making EVs themselves more sustainable, the manufacturing process cannot be overlooked.

Dirty electric grids

Another major conflict in EV use, is the electricity they run on. Charging and driving an EV where energy is mostly or completely renewable will lead to far less carbon emissions over a lifetime than driving the exact same vehicle somewhere else. For example, in Costa Rica where the grid is powered by 98 percent renewable energy, versus Wyoming whose grid is powered by less than 0.5 percent renewable energy.

This comparison shows how much EVs rely on cleaner electric grids to reach their full potential in combatting climate change. As long as grids are powered by fossil fuels, EVs will never be able to live up to their zero-emission claims.

Lost opportunity in recycling

Though mining for elements is a major contributor to EVs’ total carbon emissions, the good news is that nearly 50 percent of these materials in batteries are recyclable. Rare minerals like nickel, cobalt and lithium can be recovered from exhausted batteries and repurposed in new ones.

The catch, however, is that large-scale recycling solutions are not yet widely available. As a result, less than 5 percent of lithium-ion batteries end up being recycled. Though this doesn’t seem to be a problem now, as EVs are so new not many are being recycled quite yet, this could be a major problem going forward if the proper infrastructure is not put into place.

So, are EVs are good for the environment as we think?

In short, the answer is not yet, but one day. While they do undeniably create a lower carbon footprint than ICE cars and trucks, these results take a lifetime of use to come true. Ultimately, for electric vehicles to truly be a zero-emission solution, it will require a massive overhaul of the current manufacturing processes and the electric grids that support them. Essentially, electrification is not the final destination for fleets, but rather one of the many steps toward creating a sustainable society.

If you’re interested to learn more about electrification and helping fleets to get more value from their telematics data, schedule a demo with us.

Priscilla Valdez

Content Specialist

Priscilla Valdez is a content specialist at Utilimarc. She enjoys storytelling and sharing industry insights through writing that is compelling and dynamic. See more from Priscilla

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