Electric cars are being touted as the solution to carbon emissions, but the situation may not be as clear-cut as most people believe.
Studies show that electric car recharging stations could increase CO2 emissions unless they are powered by renewable energy sources like wind or solar power. While overall energy consumption for electric vehicles can decrease in comparison to internal combustion engines, charging an electric car can cause more carbon dioxide emissions due to electricity production’s dependency on fossil fuels.
The effectiveness of electric vehicles depends largely on the power grid in a specific area. In some countries, electric cars can cause more emissions while in others they help decrease emissions.
Electric vehicles likely increase carbon dioxide emissions
In the US, electric cars would likely increase carbon dioxide emissions compared to a normal car due to coal-fired power plants acting as backup generators when there is no wind at night or during calm days, thus increasing demand for coal and leading to higher emissions.
Countries leading the charge with renewables, like Germany, the Netherlands, and Norway, are embracing electric cars. For example, Germany is building an infrastructure that would allow drivers to travel virtually anywhere in their country by charging stations.
Norway has taken this even further with plans for an extensive network of roads called ‘Electric highways’ which use overhead wires to provide enough power for up to 100 vehicles at a time. Electric vehicles are having a positive impact on carbon emissions. This is likely because the underlying infrastructure is there and the reliance reduction on fossil fuels. But in areas that are still primarily using fossil fuels, there is no eradication of emissions. They are simply being shifted around.
A variety of factors make it difficult to determine how electric cars affect CO2 emissions, but looking at scientific studies reveals little doubt that the issue is still under debate.
Waste and its contribution to questioning sustainability
As well as the issue with electricity production, experts are also concerned about the problem of waste. The batteries are made with toxic materials which could cause problems with incorrect disposal. They also do not contain enough recycled material to ensure that batteries will be truly recyclable in the future.
The materials that are used to manufacture the batteries are also raising questions about sustainability. Rare metals like neodymium, for example, are used to create batteries for most EVs. The mining of this metal produces a radioactive element that causes significant damage.
In the US, there are regulations surrounding the mining of rare earth metals but that is not the case elsewhere in the world. China, for example, produces many of the rare metals used to manufacture electronics, including batteries for electric vehicles.
We are already dealing with a global electronic waste crisis as a result of increased dependence on phones and laptops. Electric car batteries add to this problem and could cause serious environmental damage if not handled correctly.
The long-term impact of electric vehicles
Differences in maintenance handling are also causing concern about the long-term impact of EVs. Traditional vehicles are easily serviceable and repairable as the mechanical elements can be replaceable. By investing in regular servicing and maintenance (click here for more info), drivers can extend the lifespan of their vehicles and keep them on the road for much longer. This drastically reduces waste and prevents the need for a brand new vehicle.
However, electric vehicles are much harder to maintain. Drivers must rely on manufacturers to repair their cars and many electric vehicles are disposable. Instead of fixing components, they are simply replaceable. In some cases, the entire vehicle will be swappable. The emissions created during the manufacturing process for the new cars mean that electric vehicles are often far less sustainable.
As car manufacturing changes and electric vehicles become more commonplace, this problem may rectify itself. Manufacturers will have to design vehicles that are more easily serviceable and recyclable, but this may not happen for several years. Until then, electric vehicles have the potential to create a serious waste problem.
The last few years mark a huge increase in electric vehicles sales worldwide. A number of manufacturers have plans to move their operation towards electric and away from standard combustion engines over the next decade. There is no doubt that these vehicles will continue to grow in popularity because drivers are increasingly concerned about global warming and want to reduce their carbon footprint. But while they have several environmental benefits, there are still concerns to address before drivers can consider them completely sustainable.
The 2040 promise to end fossil fuels: not realistic enough
At the recent COP26 summit, world leaders made agreements about fossil fuel targets. Many countries are now pledging to stop the use of fossil fuels within the next few decades. The promises include an end to oil production by 2040. This could lead to the complete extinction of the combustion engine. (However, this is not a realistic goal.) As well as drastically reducing the levels of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere, this would also reduce pollution levels. However, it has its own problems.
For developed countries, this target appears more achievable as the beginnings of renewable infrastructure are already there. However, less-developed nations may struggle to meet the goals. This disparity between renewable energy solutions means that electric cars will only be a viable solution in certain parts of the world. World leaders have promised to fund smaller nations to help them bridge the gap. However, many say that the plan does not go far enough.
The discussion around electric vehicles and their long-term environmental impact highlights a wider issue with the way that we approach the climate crisis. Currently, the increase in electric vehicles is not enough to manage carbon emissions. However, countries must overhaul their energy production systems and adopt renewables on a much larger scale. For small nations without the economic stability and infrastructure in place to support a new energy system, electric cars are just changing the source of emissions, not eliminating them. The process of manufacturing these vehicles is also creating a number of sustainability issues.
Electric cars may be a step in the right direction. However, their failures only serve to highlight the necessary systemic changes in order to protect the climate.