May 3, 2022

Must you Destroy the Earth to Save it? EVs and the Environment

According to the EPA, transportation accounts for the largest portion of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. So it's no wonder electric cars are considered a vital solution to curbing climate change. But EVs don't come without their own criticisms. Here's a close-up look at three of them (and why they're not really that accurate at all).
Aerial shot of an electric car driving on a tree-covered street

If you’re interested in electric vehicles (EVs for short), you’ve probably run into folks – in person or virtually – who really, really don’t like them. Inevitably, they will trot out the anti-EV memes and links “proving” that EVs are worse for the environment than gasoline cars, good only for helping virtue-signaling hypocrites and suckers feel even more smug than they already are. Let’s look at the three main arguments they make – and the real facts around them. (Spoiler alert: the pros for Mother Earth far outweigh the cons when it comes to EVs!)

Criticism #1: Manufacturing EVs causes more harm than good

There’s a popular narrative that’s been repeated since not long after the Toyota Prius appeared 20 years ago: the extraction of raw materials, refinement into metals and components, and energy required to build battery-electric vehicles (hybrid and EV alike) creates so much environmental harm and pollution that the net effects on global warming and environmental destruction are worse than if one just drove a sensible, gas-powered used car.

Is this true? To answer the question, we have to quantify how much manufacturing a 25-mpg internal-combustion engine (ICE) car will impact the environment and add to greenhouse gasses, and then compare that to a typical EV. That doesn’t sound easy because it’s not! You’d have to know how much metal, plastic and other materials go into each car, how much energy it takes to extract, transport and refine all that stuff, and how that energy was produced. 

Luckily, there are research institutions dedicated to this minutiae that have been studying this issue for decades. But when you look at what they find, it’s important to know that some of these institutions start out with a conclusion and then cherry pick (or invent) facts that support it. For instance, researchers funded by the fossil-fuel industry look for the worst-case estimate about lithium mining from dozens or hundreds of sources, or only report on reports of human-rights abuses at cobalt mines while ignoring similar reports from mines that produce metals for catalytic converters.

So how bad is lithium? Lithium’s atomic number is 3. That means only two elements (hydrogen and helium) are more abundant in the universe. In other words: there’s a lot of it. The problem is, it’s a salt and very diluted in most places. That means miners use fresh water to pump very salty water from way down below ground up to the surface to dry and extract the lithium and other minerals. Add to that: most of this super-salty water is in environmentally sensitive areas like deserts.

That said, it can be extracted in a manner that minimizes harm to the local environment, and in most cases it is. Market pressure will also likely lead to more sustainable and inexpensive ways to extract it, for instance from seawater or geothermal springs.

Battery production does have an effect on the environment, as does the manufacture of ICE cars. But it’s not hugely more damaging, and if you look at the entire life cycle of a car, from digging the minerals to its service life to its disassembly and disposal, studies confirm the EV is a win. According to Dr. Daniel Sperling of UC Davis’s Institute of Transportation Studies, “Batteries have a large carbon footprint, but the net effect is that EVs are far superior to ICE-vehicles in reducing carbon and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.” 

Criticism #2: They’re not really zero emissions

A 2012 study showed that the least-efficient EV sold at the time, when charged with electricity from the dirtiest possible sources, caused the same level of carbon emissions as a very efficient ICE hybrid. And with that, something of an urban legend about EVs not actually being all that better on the emissions front, was born. 

Since the early 2000s, however, the energy mix has changed dramatically, especially in the coastal states where the great majority of EVs do their charging. A modern, efficient EV, charging from a grid that gets over half of its energy from zero-emissions sources (like California) is many times cleaner than a hybrid. Charge it from rooftop solar (as a third of U.S. EV owners and more than half of European EV owners do) and it’s about as green as motorized transportation can get. But even in a mostly-coal state, an efficient EV still produces less emissions than any ICE. “The EV, utilizing the average US electrical grid emissions rate, has a life cycle GHG emission rate of about half that of a comparable gasoline vehicle,” Argonne National Labs researcher Jarod Kelly told French news service AFP.

Willy Wonka meme that falsely states electric cars are bad for the environment because the electricity used to power them is coal-powered.

And while oftentimes funny, the “coal-powered EV” meme (take a look at an example to the left) is the least-truthy of all the anti-EV arguments. Not only is it false except in the most extreme cases, it’s not even an argument against EVs. It’s an argument against burning coal and other fossil fuels to generate electricity, and an argument in favor of improvements and upgrades to our energy grid as well as incentives for conservation and renewable energy sources. 

Criticism #3: EVs have an unhappy ending

The image the anti-EV crowd wants to stick in your head is a massive pile of worn-out EVs, rusting away in landfills as the batteries leach toxic chemicals into the groundwater. Vivid, but it hasn’t happened yet—in fact, it might not ever happen at all.

Close up shot of an electric vehicle battery

Yes, lithium batteries do have a limited lifespan. But even when that “lifespan” (when capacity drops below 80 percent of new) is reached, that doesn’t mean it’s ready to toss into the recycle bin! An EV with 80 percent range is still useful, and since the cars are so simple mechanically, they have the potential to last for many hundreds of thousands of miles. When the battery does eventually fail, it can often be renewed by replacing individual cells or modules.

Additionally, the battery will still be useful as energy storage for a stationary power system, like the Tesla PowerWall, as capacity isn’t as important in that application. That means your worn-out car will have some cash value. (Bonus: other components of EVs, like interior panels, fabrics and plastics, are also designed to be recyclable or biodegradable.) 

But eventually the batteries will be ready for recycling, and though it will be some time before there are a lot of them to deal with, the market is already providing solutions. EV batteries are complex, which makes recycling challenging…but not impossible. There is already a small ecosystem of startups in place developing safe, clean and cost-effective ways to recycle battery elements, which will not only keep toxic materials out of landfills, but also ease demand for raw materials extracted from sensitive environments.

In conclusion…

Yes, there is truth to the information about the EV’s impact on the environment. But if you look at the total life of the car compared to gas-powered vehicles, the EV is a winner. Plus, as technology and regulation catch up, the advantage will grow.

Every technology has drawbacks – it’s a matter of stepping back and seeing the big picture. And the picture is clear: EVs are a necessary tool in the fight against global warming.

Are you ready to drive electric? Check out what Flux offers and how our flexible EV leases work.