There is a myth that claims electric vehicles (EVs) produce more carbon emissions than their internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle counterparts due to the battery supply chain. Opponents to EVs argue that the mining and manufacturing of the lithium-ion battery produce far more carbon emissions than a conventional ICE vehicle; therefore, EVs are not as “green” as people think they are.
While this has been proven untrue (details provided below), there is still some concern about the carbon emissions released from the EV supply chain. Today’s lithium-ion batteries are composed of many raw Earth materials. These elements are sometimes difficult to extract, and the mining processes do create carbon emissions.
That being said, EVs are still better for the environment than their ICE counterparts. As you’ll learn in this article, there are significant environmental benefits from EVs that offset the initial carbon emissions.
Several scientific studies have reviewed the “crib to cradle,” “well to wheel,” or lifecycle emissions of an EV versus an ICE vehicle. In other words, the lifecycle emissions account for the entire process including material supply chain, manufacturing, operation, and disposal of the vehicle.
As it turns out, EVs are far better for the environment (and our lungs). Per the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), EVs today produce around 63% fewer emissions over the life of the vehicle compared to an ICE vehicle. As a bonus, as the grid gets cleaner with more renewables, the amount of carbon emissions will decrease even further.
That is a significant reduction in carbon emissions for simply using electric over gas. This is why many climate action plans call for the transportation sector to switch to electric. With such a reduction in emissions, we could make great progress on large-scale climate change goals.
One way to think of EV’s and their associated carbon emissions is that it is an investment. During manufacturing, EVs are more carbon intensive than ICE vehicles. Over time though, EVs turn out to be better for the environment. In fact, one study found that it took just 7,000 miles for an EV to pay off its carbon emissions investment. In short, in less than one year of ownership, an EV is better for the environment than a comparable gas-powered vehicle.
Today’s EV batteries are mainly two different types: Lithium Nickel Manganese Cobalt (NMC) and Lithium Iron Phosphate (LFP). Each battery chemistry has different performance, energy density, and manufacturing cost. For a while, NMC batteries were the top pick for automakers. Recently, LFP batteries have become more popular as they are cheaper to make while still promising satisfactory performance.
A third battery chemistry is in the works that promises even greater energy density and longevity than its predecessors. This new battery, solid state, is expected to hit the market sometime around 2025.
As batteries become more and more efficient, they require fewer materials. With less materials to mine, the associated carbon emissions are reduced.
Emissions Versus Air Pollution
Vehicular emissions and air pollution are often used interchangeably; however, there is a distinct difference between the two.
Carbon emissions, often called greenhouse gases (GHGs), are types of molecules that contribute to climate change. Carbon emissions, such as carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane, trap heat in the atmosphere. For reference, a 2021 Toyota RAV4 emits five tons of carbon emissions each and every year per the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). That is a lot of emissions from just one vehicle!
Now decades in, the climate crisis is in full swing. We must do everything we can to reduce the amount of carbon emissions we release into the air. Per the EPA, 29% of global greenhouse gases are from the transportation sector.
On the other hand, air pollution is a category of gases that is directly harmful to people and animals. These gases can cause lung disease, asthma, cancer, and even premature death. The most common air pollutants from ICE vehicles are particulate matter, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen dioxide.
EVs, however, do not have a tailpipe and therefore do not release any air pollution. EVs are vitally important to clean air for all.
Battery Second Life
Many automakers make warranty claims that the vehicle’s battery is considered beyond its useful life when the available capacity drops below 70%. At this point, some may think at this point the battery must be thrown into a landfill – this is not true.
Since the vast majority of the battery’s cells are still in working condition, the battery can be repurposed for what is known as a “second life.” Companies such as Redwood Materials or Li-Cycle are already doing this.
By extracting the working cells from the battery, this renewed battery can serve as stationary storage for utilities or homeowners. It can also be used as emergency backup power for hospitals, emergency shelters, or office buildings.
By extending the life of the battery, the carbon emissions spent during the original EV supply chain are offset even further.
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