An electric vehicle (EV) will incur many fewer emissions over its life than would an internal combustion engine (ICE)-powered vehicle. The materials required for EV battery manufacturing cause a number of environmental impacts, though, and are of concern.
In the cases of lithium, cobalt, and rare earth elements, the world’s top 3 producers control well over three-quarters of global output. This high geographical concentration, the long lead times to bring new mineral production on stream, the declining resource quality in some areas, and various environmental and social impacts all raise concerns around reliable and sustainable supplies of minerals to support the energy transition.
Over the lifetime of the vehicle, total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with manufacturing, charging, and driving an EV are lower than the total GHGs associated with a gasoline car. That’s because EVs have zero tailpipe emissions and are typically responsible for significantly fewer GHGs during operation. Researchers at Argonne National Laboratory estimated emissions for both an ICE-powered car and an EV with a 300-mile electric range. In their estimates, while GHG emissions from EV manufacturing and end-of-life are higher, total GHGs for the EV are still lower than those for the ICE-powered car.
Yet there’s no hiding it: even though EVs full life emissions are fewer than an ICE-powered vehicle, EV manufacturing has a dark side and conflicting priorities that need focus and research.
An EV needs about 200 kg of minerals like copper, nickel, cobalt, and lithium. That’s 6x more than an ICE-powered car. In a scenario outlined by the IEA that meets the Paris Agreement goals, clean energy technologies’ share of total demand rises significantly over the next two decades to over 40% for copper and rare earth elements, 60-70% for nickel and cobalt, and almost 90% for lithium.
There are expected to be about 10 million EV battery packs shipped in 2022 globally, with numbers anticipated to rise to 30 million in 2027. California will ban the sale of new ICE-powered cars by 2035, another step in the global marketplace toward the transition to all-electric transportation and the need for EV batteries.
Recycling EV batteries is often looked to as a means to reduce the emissions associated with making an EV by cutting requirements for primary supply. Recycling takes into account both conventional sources and emerging waste streams such as spent batteries from electric vehicles. But battery recycling is only a proverbial drop in the EV manufacturing bucket.
Responsible extraction is essential. It involves investigating local biodiversity, water flows, and the concerns of local communities to figure out how to reduce harm, Aimee Boulanger, executive director of the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance, told the New York Times. Those measures can be expensive, which can cut into profits, so most companies adhere to minimal law requirements.
Progress toward responsible extraction is taking place, albeit slowly, in Chile and the US. Boulanger argues that those laws are often not strict enough to really protect the environment, saying, “It doesn’t take a lot of new technology.”
Critics like ZETA and Ford counter that the urgency of the climate crisis means the world doesn’t have time to extract these metals in a meticulous way. “Maybe we would not live in the climate-stressed world we live in right now if we had looked at the impacts of sourcing oil and gas,” she notes, adding, “We don’t have time to make more messes as we try to solve this problem.”