Are electric vehicles as green as claimed?


An investigation into how green electric cars are

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By Raphael Henry

IN RECENT WEEKS, a curious dispute between two unlikely candidates has played out over whether electric vehicles (EVs) are really as beneficial for the environment as they claim to be. It all began when actor and comedian Rowan Atkinson (who has a degree in electrical engineering) wrote in a Guardian article that he feels “duped” by EVs, despite having spent years at the wheel of one, and is now concerned that they are not “quite the environmental panacea [they] claimed to be”.

In response, Jonathan Chadwick – a science reporter for the Daily Mail, called upon a plethora of environ- mental academics to debunk the actor’s claims. This has in turn resulted in a wave of support for Atkinson from petrol car enthusiasts, who have hailed him for “saying the unsayable” (that the government’s target of ban-ning the sale of petrol cars by 2030 is a mistake).

In understanding whether EVs are more beneficial for the environ-ment than conventional cars, there are some key differences that must be considered. Most obviously, unlike cars running on petrol or diesel, EVs do not emit exhaust fumes – a clear win when lowering greenhouse  gas emissions is one of the foremost tasks of combating climate change (according to an EU report, road transportation contributes about one fifth of all CO2 emissions in the EU, a figure which they aim to decrease by 90 percent).

Yet in contrast, thanks in large part to the manufacturing process for lithium ion batteries, the mass production of EVs could be particularly damaging for the environment. A report by the environmental group Fauna and Flora warns that producing enough EV batteries to meet the target of phasing out petrol-fuelled cars by 2050 would require the environmentally damaging extraction of such large quantities of rare minerals (such as cobalt, manganese, and nickel), that land supplies of these minerals would likely be completely depleted.

As a solution, mining companies have proposed digging up rare mineral deposits on the ocean floor to meet the demand – a practice which would not only severely disrupt ecosystems about which very little is known (75 percent of the seafloor remains un-mapped, and 99 percent of the deep ocean is unexplored), but could also accelerate climate change by disturbing the large carbon reservoirs that are currently held safely in the depths of the ocean.

So, despite being touted as carbon neutral, there is an upfront en-vironmental cost to buying an EV. Likewise, although it is true that EVs do not produce greenhouse gas emis-sions whilst driving, running an EV is still not carbon neutral if the electricity used to charge the car does not come entirely from renewable sources. As a result, analysis by Reuters suggests that an EV needs to be driven for an average of 13,500 miles (21,725 km) before it does less environmental harm than driving an equivalent petrol-fuelled car. Given that the aver-age car in the UK drove 6,800 miles in 2020, and that people usually change cars every three years, a brand-new EV only becomes more beneficial for the environment in terms of emis- sions when it is about to be sold second hand.

Of course, at this point the EV still has a long life ahead of it (with most EV batteries lasting for around a decade). After this, most EV batter-ies can be recycled to reclaim the rare minerals that they contain, in order to construct new batteries. Furthermore,
as the proportion of energy generated by renewables grows, the time taken for an EV to pay off its carbon foot- print will decrease rapidly. The development of new technologies, such as lighter and less resource-intensive solid state batteries, will speed up this
process even further and potentially alleviate issues with current lithium ion batteries (for example, current EV batteries are so heavy that they cause rapid tyre degradation, releasing substantial quantities of polluting and harmful rubber particulates).

Rowan Atkinson’s point, however, was not to conclude that combustion engine cars are better for the environment than EVs, but rather to highlight that EVs are not the perfect solution for reducing emissions. What needs to change is not so much the cars that we drive, but instead how we drive them: as Atkinson states, people must buy new cars less often, drive less, and utilise public transportation wherever possible. It is predominately through these societal changes that transportation emissions can be brought down to acceptable levels