At the global level, undoubtedly, we are becoming more environmentally aware, and there are more attempts to address pollution than ever. But is the concern proportionate to the levels of pollution, and are we looking at the whole picture in terms of sources and long-term impact?

Unfortunately, the answer to both questions is negative, and then we must ask the question: how come, that with all the advanced science measuring the pollutants’ impact more than ever in the past, we are still behaving so irresponsibly! Who is to be blamed? And how can we bring about change, to prevent next generation from inheriting an unhealthy environment and suffering because we did not act timely and properly?

Though the governments are the first to be blamed for lack of proper vision and determination to address the problems, it is far too simple and one-sided to stop there. Every company and indeed every individual can contribute importantly, but for this to happen the awareness, and consequently, the motivation must be strong enough to make us feel obliged to change ourselves and put pressure on those who are the main polluters. Let us first look at transport.

Everybody knows that cargo shipping is by far the biggest GHG emitter, and why can’t the governments simply forbid the use of the cheapest type of fuel (so-called “bunker fuel”)? The International Maritime Organisation is pushing them to switch to diesel or liquified gas – drastically reducing CO2 emissions. Of course, we know who will pay the difference, not the shipping companies, but us, the consumers. And, if we want cleaner air, we have to be ready to cover the expenses. Our dilemmas are simple, but we have to face them, and act now!

About electric vehicles

The vehicle, which uses one or more electric motors or traction motors for propulsion, may be powered through a collector system by electricity from off-vehicle sources, or maybe self-contained with a battery, solar panels, fuel cells or an electric generator to convert fuel to electricity. Most electric vehicles power the motor by a battery that recharges by plugging into a source of electricity for several hours. They are called "emissions-free", even though the source of the electricity used to recharge them may not be, and manufacturing them involves a variety of emissions. Hybrids can drive short distances on battery-powered electricity, then switch to gas or fuel for longer trips.

Some advantages and disadvantages of EVs

  • EVs release no tailpipe air pollutants at the place where they are operated. However, EVs are charged with electricity that is generated by means that have health and environmental impacts, and the air emissions associated with manufacturing an electric vehicle can be greater than those of manufacturing a conventional vehicle.
  • Electric motors are mechanically very simple and often achieve 90% energy conversion efficiency over the full range of speeds and power output, and can be precisely controlled. They can also be combined with regenerative braking systems that have the ability to convert movement energy back into stored electricity.
  • EVs provide quiet and smooth operation and consequently have less noise and vibration than internal combustion engines.
  • Electricity can be produced from a variety of sources, therefore it gives the greatest degree of energy resilience.
  • EV 'tank-to-wheels' efficiency is about a factor of 3 higher than internal combustion engine vehicles. Energy is not consumed while the vehicle is stationary, unlike internal combustion engines which consume fuel while idling. However, looking at the well-to-wheel efficiency of EVs, their total emissions, while still lower, are closer to efficient gasoline or diesel in most countries where electricity generation relies on fossil fuels.
  • The cost of operating an EV varies wildly depending on location. In some parts of the world, an EV costs less to drive than a comparable gas-powered vehicle, as long as the higher initial purchase price is not factored in.
  • Since EVs can be plugged into the electric grid when not in use, there is a potential for battery-powered vehicles to even cut the demand for electricity by feeding electricity into the grid from their batteries during peak use periods while doing most of their charging at night, when there is unused generating capacity.
  • Furthermore, our current electricity infrastructure may need to cope with increasing shares of variable-output power sources such as wind and solar PV.
  • Electric vehicles may have a shorter range compared to Internal Combustion Engines, however, the price per mile of electric vehicles is falling, so this problem may cease to exist in the future.
  • Considerable energy is needed to heat the interior of a vehicle and to defrost the windows. With internal combustion engines, this heat already exists as waste combustion heat diverted from the engine cooling circuit. This process offsets greenhouse gases' external costs. If this is done with battery EVs, the interior heating requires extra energy from the vehicles' batteries. Although some heat could be harvested from the motor or motors and battery, their greater efficiency means there is not as much waste heat available as from a combustion engine. However, for vehicles which are connected to the grid, battery EVs can be preheated, or cooled, with little or no need for battery energy, especially for short trips.

After a vehicle’s design, ores and petroleum are extracted for the body, batteries, computers and motor. In 2019, scientists from UK's Natural History Museum reported that "replacing all UK-based vehicles with electric vehicles... would take 207,900 tonnes cobalt, 264,600 tonnes of lithium carbonate, at least 7,200 tonnes of neodymium and dysprosium and 2,362,500 tonnes of copper."

Extracting ores endangers miners; Child-miners have been maimed and buried alive while mining for cobalt (used in EV batteries). While manufacturers aim to replace cobalt with magnesium chloride (road salt), like any new technology, it should receive an appropriately thorough evaluation before it’s used.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, mining for coltan (also used for batteries) has led to more victims than any other single event since WWII. No metal comes out of the Earth in a usable form. Metal must be “reduced” from the ore. Smelting cobalt requires approximately 7000-8000 kWh of electricity for every ton of metal produced. Copper (for motors, batteries and computers) requires 9000 kWh. For every kilogram of copper mined, at least 21 kilograms of waste are generated.

Some EV motors' and speakers’ magnets are made from neodymium and dysprosium. Production of these rare earth generates fluorine, waste gas containing dust, hydrofluoric acid, sulfur dioxide, sulfuric acid, acidic waste water and radioactive waste residue. According to the Chinese Society of Rare Earths, "All the rare-earth enterprises in (China's) Baotou region produce approximately ten million tons of wastewater every year." Most of it is "discharged without being treated, which contaminates potable water for daily living, the surrounding water environment and irrigated farmlands." China controls at least 77% of the rare-earth market, making manufacturers dependent on international supply chains with minimal regulation.

Producing silicon for transistors (fundamental components in computers, which process and store data, provide software, proximity sensors, anti-lock braking systems, GPS, etc.) starts with smelting quartz in a furnace kept at 1800 °F (982 °C). Other steps required to manufacture silicon also demand extremely high heat and electricity from coal, hydro and/or nuclear power. One cannot call these steps “zero emitters.”

U.S. smelters are regulated. Still, smelting silicon (for vehicles’ windows and computers) in the U.S. has significant emissions. In 2016, for example, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation issued a silicon manufacturer a permit to release, annually, 250 tons of carbon monoxide, ten tons of formaldehyde, ten tons of hydrogen chloride, ten tons of lead, 75,000 tons of oxides of nitrogen, 75,000 tons of particulates, ten tons of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, 40 tons of sulfur dioxide, and seven tons of sulfuric acid mist.

Processing lithium (for batteries) takes water from communities and farmers. Discarded lithium batteries can contaminate water supplies, disturb homeostasis during a woman's pregnancy and possibly increase suicide rates. Because lithium batteries can short circuit and/or be charged improperly, they can explode. To date, lithium batteries are not recyclable.

Mining and smelting graphite (for batteries) can cover nearby crops, waterways, livestock, trees, indoor spaces and people in black soot. Exposure to fine-particle graphite pollution can cause breathing difficulties and heart attacks.

Producing plastics (for car seats, interior and exterior bodies) from petroleum products emits GHGs. Plastics do not biodegrade easily and are difficult to recycle.

Processing, shipping and assembly

Like all manufactured products, any EV's materials require shipping between stations. If cargo shipping were a country, it would rank as the world's sixth-biggest GHG emitter. Before a laptop owner turns it on for the first, time, a laptop has already consumed 81% of its cradle-to-grave energy. One EV can have fifty or more computers. A smartphone (a handheld computer) can depend on 1000+ substances, each with its own international supply chain. Computers contain circuit boards. One worker might clean 750 boards per day with solvents like benzene and n-hexane. Benzene can cause leukemia, and n-hexane has been linked to nerve damage.

EMR emissions

The EV’s computers, power systems, motors, active sensors and antennas emit electromagnetic radiation (EMR). The U.S.’s Federal Communications Commission determined that EMR exposure from such devices is safe because it has no significant, immediate effect on body temperature. However, EMR-exposure can cause non-thermal effects: it can damage DNA and increase the risk of cancer and other diseases. A vehicle’s EMR emissions can cause a deep brain stimulator (DBS) (a medical implant for neurological diseases like Parkinson's) to shut off or reprogram. I know a woman who drove her hybrid car after she had a DBS implanted. Each time the car's battery-charger turned on at stoplights, the computers' magnetic fields shut off her implant. In 2000, 8-10% of the U.S. population had an implant. If someone has a DBS, they cannot ride in an electric vehicle.

Charging EVs

While Tesla calls his supercharging stations "free," scientists from UK's Natural History Museum report that charging EVs for the 252.5 billion miles that Brits currently drive annually would require a 20% increase in UK-generated electricity. In turn, this would increase greenhouse gas emissions. Of course, EV charging stations also embody energy, extracted ores and GHGs - even when they’re solar-powered. Most EVs can drive 250-300 miles per charge. Building induction chargers into highways (as some policymakers propose) would allow electric vehicles to charge while driving. Depending on their power, frequency and dosage, induction chargers could reprogram a deep brain stimulator - and prove fatal for people who have them.

The EV graveyard

Annually, worldwide, we generate about 50 million metric tons of e-waste; this amount increases by about eight million tons each year. EV-battery waste grows significantly. Further, while Europe and the U.S. are the main producers and consumers of electronics (including e-vehicles), Africa and Asia are the main receivers of e-waste. About 20% of electronics are recycled. Recycling also consumes energy and emits GHGs and toxins. While extending a vehicle's usable life depends on easily replaced and affordable parts, parts also hold embodied energy and GHGs.

The U.S. alone generates 246 million waste tires per year. Tires are made from natural and synthetic rubber, chemicals, polymers and steel (for reinforcement), and fillers like silica and carbon. Most wasted tires are burned. Because they contain chemicals and synthetics, burning tires increase health risks when people inhale their smoke, particles and chemicals. Left in dumpsites for long enough, decaying tires can pollute soil and groundwater.

Regulating EVs

While technologies (including those used in electric vehicles) change constantly, we know of no U.S. agency that evaluates EVs with appropriately thorough due diligence. The U.S. 2010 Dodd-Frank Act requires publicly-listed corporations that use tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold (minerals commonly mined under abusive conditions and used in computers) to report efforts to locate the mineral's source to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). In 2017, the SEC suspended enforcement of this regulation. In 2021, The European Union Conflict Minerals Regulation will begin regulating mineral importers.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) evaluates the energy used and the fluids, gases and carbon monoxide emitted by a vehicle while it operates. EPA does not evaluate energy used or toxins emitted during manufacturing. It does not evaluate labor standards of corporations that purchase raw materials. No agency regulates or monitors the energy required to repair, recycle or dispose of a vehicle. In January 2020, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao announced that the U.S. will not regulate manufacturers of self-driving vehicles. The government will promote only voluntary standards. Without government oversight, consumers and municipalities seeking cradle-to-grave evaluations of vehicles’ ecological impacts are on their own.

Driving forward

Herman Daly’s principle is: “Don’t take from the Earth faster than it can replenish. Don’t waste faster than the Earth can absorb.”

To reduce our vehicles’ ecological impacts, let us include extractions and embodied energy, emissions and toxins in-vehicle evaluations. Katie Singer suggests to ask ourselves: "Is this vehicle truly within our ecological means?" instead of "Which vehicle does the least damage.” “To provide for a resilient future with significantly decreased ecological impacts, could vehicle manufacturers, regulators and consumers:

  • prioritize reduction of consumption, extraction and emissions over technological progress and profit?
  • improve public transportation and redesign cities to encourage walking and biking?
  • enact regulations that require safe working conditions and limit ecological impacts throughout supply chains?
  • require manufacturers to design vehicles that are easily repaired and recycled?
  • invest in mechanics who can maintain and repair the vehicles we already have?”

In the end, Katie Singer is wondering: “If decreasing our ecological footprint is our priority, then isn’t maintaining an old gas guzzler better than buying a new vehicle?”

Closing thoughts

The problem of reducing pollution is enormous, and though public attention is increasing, the awareness about all the dimensions and aspects to be addressed is far from satisfactory.

On one hand, national authorities, international organisations, as well as business association will have to be much stricter in allowing some dangerous elements and substances to be used in manufacturing products which affect human health through its embodied components. Science has proven that and there is no excuse for ignoring their alarming discoveries (mobile phones, computers, etc.).

The electric vehicles (their number is expected to grow during 2025-2040 globally from 10 to 60 million units) are a solution, but the manufacturers should be obliged to make maximal efforts to eliminate or at least minimize the environmental impact related to the battery, and unnecessary dangerous substances being built into or being used during the manufacturing of components being built into the vehicle.

One of the issues in a proper understanding of the battle for a cleaner environment is surely to look at the full life-cycle of many products, including electric vehicles, computers, mobile phones. Instead of uncritically embracing any new technical gadget, we should think twice whether we really need it, and if so, insist on a complete and honest declaration by the manufacturer on all potential harmful effects the use of the product can cause on human health.

At the same time arrangements should be made for the safest possible procedure of disposal or recycling of products. Here the respective national inspection agencies also have to do a much better job.

Sources used and further reading

K. Singer, Proposing cradle-to-grave evaluations for all vehicles, Wall Street International, 3 November 2020.
T. R.Hawkins, et al., Comparative Environmental Life Cycle Assessment of Conventional and Electric Vehicles, J. of Industrial Ecology, Vol. 17, No. 1, 2012.
K. Sovacool, et al., Sustainable minerals and metals for a low-carbon future, Science, Vol. 367, Issue 6473, 3 January 2020.
Leading scientists set out resource challenge of meeting net zero emissions in the UK by 2050, 5 June 2019.
A. Katwala, The spiraling environmental cost of our lithium battery addiction, 8 May 2018.
Environmental aspects of the electric car.