Whether or not you’re a car fanatic, it would’ve been rather difficult to avoid spotting the increasing popularity of electric cars. From snazzy adverts and subsides to the increasingly common presence of charging points at fuel stations, their rapid growth is expected to continue, with the National Grid forecasting a 90% market share in the UK by 2050. The primary drive behind this growth is the desire of the general public to cut their emissions – but how are electric cars any better than typical petrol cars? And what about emissions besides carbon?
23% of global energy related emissions are from the petrol and diesel dominated transport sector, a figure which is expected to double by 2050 if nothing is changed. A common criticism of electric cars is that the manufacturing process emits 15% more than that of their fossil fuelled counterparts. But this all changes when the car hits the road. While the emissions reduction potential of electric cars varies greatly depending on the source of electricity, even charging using electrical grids powered mostly by fossil fuels, such as in Virginia, USA, releases fewer emissions than using traditional gasoline cars. And where the grid leans towards renewables, such as in New Zealand, EVs offer an 80% reduction in carbon.
The other key point regarding EVs is their impact on air pollution. In the UK alone, air pollution is connected to around 40,000 deaths every year, and is at its worst levels in cities. Despite releasing a slightly greater quantity of pollutants from the wheels than normal cars (due to the increased weight of EVS), EVs release no tailpipe emissions: consequently, their widespread uptake will be associated with a significant increase in air quality.
But we cannot ignore the environmental impact of the lithium mining required to make EV batteries: in the past decade, there has been a 58% increase in lithium mining worldwide. The lithium extraction process is incredibly water intensive and can result in the contamination and poisoning of local water supplies. Major strides have been made in attempt to revolutionise the battery industry. Batteries using gold nanowires or graphene and more environmentally friendly methods of recycling lithium batteries are examples of such improvements, these have yet to be deployed in EVs or used at a commercial scale respectively.
This all leads to the general conclusion that, when analysing the lifecycle of the vehicles, EVs provide a reduction in all emissions and air pollutants, the extent of which varies with energy source and vehicle model. It is not a perfect solution – its lithium demand is a blight on its record – but we must not forget the issue of time. Without significant change in the next few years, we are heading for irreversible climate catastrophe. Electric vehicles provide a reduction in emissions that we could not achieve while continuing to use petrol and diesel cars. Progress has been made with hydrogen and other cleaner forms of transport, but these technologies are simply not as advanced at a commercial scale as EVs. Whilst there is most certainly room for improvement, EVs appear to be a logical pathway towards reducing global emissions.