I cannot imagine my life without cars. My wife and I each need a car to get to the train station to work in the city, visit clients, and get our daughter to and from school. Groceries are kilometres away. On holiday, our family car is more practical, economical and sustainable than flying.
Even when I car-pooled with four colleagues, I still needed my own car to reach our meeting place. I’ve dreamed of shared cars—though I don’t know how suburban drivers like me would get to the car lot. Shared cars are impossible for international travel.
In my country (Belgium), tax payers who can afford it have a no-brainer to buy an electric vehicle (EV) and put solar PV panels on the roof. But do these subsidized opportunities really reduce our energy consumption? Or, do they merely reduce individual energy bills?
The electric car: another revolution?
I have lots of praise for EVs. But manufacturing, operating and discarding them have significant consequences to ecosystems and the public health that need mitigating. Manufacturing EVs’ huge batteries requires extracting multiple ores, guzzling energy and emitting lots of carbon. Manufacturing an EV releases about twice as much CO2 as manufacturing an internal combustion engine vehicle (ICEV) of the same weight. Processing lithium for EV batteries takes water from farmers and returns toxic water to waterways.
Calling EVs “zero-emitting” is a marketing gimmick—and I haven’t yet discussed the electricity used to charge them—or the extractions or energy or CO2 involved in manufacturing their chargers and—last but not least—strengthening the electric grid that powers the chargers.
Can we call electricity “green”?
In many countries, coal (the worst greenhouse gas [GHG] emitter and fine particulate emitter) fuels 50% or more of the electric grid. Calling an EV recharging on coal or oil a “zero-emitter” is truly deceptive. In many countries, recharging on the grid actually emits as much or more CO2 than driving an ICEV! Electricity produced from natural gas also emits CO2 but no particulates.
Here is the 2021 map of how much electricity is produced from fossil fuel.
Most EV engines use powerful magnets made from neodymium, which wreaks havoc on ecosystems and public health when it is mined (mostly in China). EV batteries use extracted metals such as lithium, cobalt, nickel and manganese. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, children have been buried alive mining for cobalt. I don’t know if it’s possible to extract any ore in an ecologically sound manner.
The EU plans to ban selling new fossil fuel-powered cars by 2035. If this plan materializes, we will have to change our driving habits, drastically. According to the Shift Project’s Jean-Marc Jancovici, France alone would need 18 new nuclear reactors to charge its EVs, maintain its current driving habits, and keep GHG emissions to a minimum. Jancovici also suggests that to power a 100 percent electric national car fleet (and decrease its greenhouse gas emissions), the French should cut their number of cars by a factor of five, use them four times less, make cars three times lighter, and charge them with low-carbon electricity such as nuclear and/or hydropower. Intermittent wind and solar PV systems cannot provide electricity 24/7—as natural gas, coal, hydro, nuclear and geothermal can do. But France already produces more than 80 percent of its electricity from low-carbon non-intermittent sources (68 percent nuclear, 12 percent hydro, 2 percent for biofuel, waste and geothermal). Another stunning exception is Iceland, producing 100 percent zero-carbon electricity (hydro 69 percent, geothermal 31 percent)—but Iceland is blessed with a unique volcanic underground. In most other countries, to keep EVs charged and minimize greenhouse gas emissions, the only choice is to build more nuclear plants.
How efficient are electric cars?
The Shift Project’s 2020 report compares all vehicles’ carbon impacts—and shows that EVs’ efficiency is 2.5 times better than ICEVs’. Jancovici’s analysis included estimated losses in the power grid (8 percent), batteries (20 percent), powering the engine (20 percent) and heating the car (20 percent).
In April 2022, the most efficient EV on the market, the Tesla Model 3, consumes 151 Wh/km. (Forget “miles per gallon” and repeat after me: “watt hours per kilometer” —the lower the better). But efficiency and range depend on driving conditions and weather. Driving this EV on the highway in cold weather should use 209 Wh/km (+ 38%); driving it in the city in mild weather should use 104 Wh/km (- 31%). Driving 25,000 km a year should consume 3,775 kWh (kilowatt hours), plus an additional 12 to 15 percent of electricity loss while charging the battery. (More losses occur while driving and using the battery). Charging at home will double the average Western household’s electric bill.
While engineers aim to improve efficiency and reduce energy use, manufacturers offer personal cars that weigh around two tons because of heavy, high-performance engines and numerous luxuries. The lightest cars available below 100,000 EUR with a range above 300 km (an arbitrary limit) are MG’s MG5 with 1550 kg and Renault’s ZOE with 1577 kg unladen.
EVs: a firefighter’s nightmare?
Firefighters can use 106,000 litres of water to extinguish one EV fire—the same amount that a fire department in a town of 100,000 uses in an average month. It can take 24 hours to extinguish an EV in fire, because the batteries re-ignite. A garaged EV fire can destroy a house or building or alter its bearing structure forever. However, according to Tesla’s 2020 impact report, Tesla car fires occur eleven times less than combustion vehicle fires. For the whole car market, statistics confirm this trend with even 60 times less fires in EVs compared to gasoline. Hybrid cars, however, present the worst fire hazards with over twice as much risk as gas-powered cars. When Li-ion (lithium-ion) batteries are replaced by safer LFP (lithium-iron-phosphate) batteries, EVs’ fire hazards should be reduced.
YouTube DIY videos that explain how to install a home charger and build a cheap charging cable certainly concern me. In France, even professional electricians must attend a certification program before installing chargers that can deliver more power than a typical domestic socket. Insurance companies report that electrical problems cause one in three residential building fires.
More safety issues…
While home and public chargers require hours for recharging, fast highway chargers can charge a battery in 20-40 minutes. They make long trips possible, while forcing drivers to stretch every few hours.
Yet, very high electric currents (hundreds of amps) that run in EVs and some fast-charging cables produce strong magnetic fields—and these can interfere with medical implants. Car makers, charging station operators, EV owners, physicians and people with implants should be aware of these risks.
Autonomous cars, energy efficiency and cleaner batteries to save us all?
If the above issues are resolved, I can see a future for EVs. But what a challenge!
Could we let go the idea of having one or more cars per household? Advances in developing fully Autonomous Vehicles (AV) are astonishing. Self-driving, fully autonomous cars should be available in this decade. Many car owners could be convinced to sell their cars and use an AV car sharing service. However, regulators are not ready yet. First, technology still needs some tweaking. Car sharing would decrease car production and sales dramatically—along with industry profits. But shouldn’t the planet’s future be our #1 concern? Looking even further, could we increase usage of public transport or redesign cities to make them more walkable and bikeable?
Back to EV batteries, according to a report from the Swedish Environmental Research Institute, making batteries in 2019 emitted 61-106 kg of CO2e (per kWh of storage), compared to 150-200 kg in 2017. A true improvement in just over two years. Tesla’s 2020 impact report shows high emissions of 10-16 tons of CO2e per car1. Yet, according to Tesla, after driving 5,340 miles (8,600 km), a Tesla Model 3 would already emit less than an ICEV. Actually, as shown on the above map, CO2 emissions from manufacturing and charging could be much more (Poland, US, China, Australia, Argentina, UK, Germany) or much less (Canada, Brazil, France, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland) depending on how the country produces electricity. Many countries still emit a lot of CO2 while producing their electricity—including Poland, India, Australia, China and soon Germany (reopening its coal-powered plants) examples. In these countries, charging an EV on the grid emits much more CO2 than driving an ICEV! Even the most efficient EV would emit 160 gCO2/km in Poland2, while best-in-class ICEVs can achieve 90-100 gCO2/km.
The Swedish report also stresses the need for more information on mining conditions and traceability in supply chains for lithium, cobalt, nickel and manganese. Some car manufacturers, including Ford, Tesla and Volkswagen, have already reduced their use of cobalt… only to replace it with nickel! Mining and refining nickel emit sulphur dioxide and metal dust, causing serious health issues in surrounding populations. Rivers can turn red due to leaking of oxidised nickel waste.
Energy: our next worst nightmare?
I admit that I am a technophile. I love cars, gadgets and innovation. But I also realize that if we truly want a sustainable world, we will need digital sobriety: we’ll need to learn to use technology—including cars—much less.
Despite the European Commissions’ foolish ambition to allow selling only electric vehicles by 2035, we simply cannot replace all internal combustion engine vehicles with electric ones. Mandating electric vehicles driving on coal-generated electricity is nonsense: it increases global carbon and particulate emissions. The batteries—and electricity for recharging them—would be unsustainable, to say nothing of the extractions and energy, GHGs and toxins involved in manufacturing them. At the end of their usable lives, electric engines and batteries become e-waste. Of course, discarding all of our existing gas-powered vehicles…to replace them with EVs…will generate inconceivable waste.
I concede that the car industry is working at improving efficiency. But because of the Jevons Paradox (a.k.a. the “rebound effect”), improved efficiency will likely increase energy use. We need less energy consumption overall, not just less energy spent per kilometre. The trouble is also that manufacturing any car and its infrastructure asks so much of the Earth.
I urge governments to encourage car sharing and walkable/bikeable cities, make public transport primary, set strict energy efficiency constraints and encourage low-carbon electricity production 24/7. As the price of energy soars, policymakers should aim to avoid leaving consumers on the side of the road, literally. EV manufacturers should prioritize low energy use above performance or comfort and provide transparency on their supply chain. Every car owner should stop being deceived by “zero-emission” marketing labels.
1 Tesla’s 2020 Impact Report estimates that vehicles in the US drive on average about 12,000 miles x 17 years, which is about 200,000 miles (320,000 km). Graphs show that manufacturing a Tesla Model 3 emits 50-80 g CO2e per mile (depending on local production) or 10-16 tons CO2e in total.
2 In 2020, Poland emitted 128 MtCO2 to produce 155 TWh of electricity, or 825 gCO2/kWh. India emitted 1171 MtCO2 to produce 1609 TWh, or 728 gCO2/kWh. China emitted 5212 MtCO2 to produce 7775 TWh, or 670 gCO2/kWh. Australia emitted 173 MtCO2 to produce 265 TWh, or 652 gCO2/kWh. Germany emitted 200 MtCO2 to produce 580 TWh or 344 gCO2/kWh (increasing after the reopening of coal-fired power plants due to nuclear ban). source: iea.org. Tesla Model 3 consumption: 151 Wh/km. Electric production required: 151 / 0.85 (charging loss) / 0.92 (grid loss) Wh/km = 193 Wh/km. Example grid-sourced CO2 emissions of a Tesla Model 3 for Germany: 0.344 gCO2 /Wh x 193 Wh/km = 66 gCO2/km.