The Dirty Secret of Electric Vehicles

By Rowland Goddard, Director of Finance

How environmentally friendly are electric vehicles actually? 

It is universally agreed upon that driving an electric car is significantly better for the environment than a car with an internal combustion engine. This is because electric motors eliminate the largest source of emissions coming from an automobile, which are those released by the tailpipe. On paper, this makes EV’s very attractive for governments and businesses trying to convey an environmentally friendly image. Although eliminating tailpipe emissions, which contribute 65-80% of total emissions in conventional vehicles, is a big step forward for the industry, it’s not the full picture.

Lithium-ion batteries, which are used in most consumer electronic products today, and are extensively found in electric vehicles, are not eco-friendly. This form of battery can store more energy in the same space then lead-acid battery technology. Yet, while 99% of lead-acid batteries are recycled, only 5% of lithium-ion are. This figure is likely to drop if the battery is highly customized like the ones found in EV’s. Companies prioritize building batteries that pack as much energy into the smallest place possible and do not consider how such a battery is taken apart. Instead of recycling these batteries, they must be shredded.

The shredding process is dangerous, not profitable, and harmful to the environment. To recycle a battery, it must be pulled apart, but battery designs are continuing to become more diverse, so this becomes difficult to do and the battery is shredded. Unfortunately, any still usable valuable materials in the battery go to waste.  

While electric cars have addressed the tailpipe emission problem, they do not address the environmental impact of manufacturing cars.  Emissions from material production for producing EV’s is predicted to grow from 18% of vehicles’ life-cycle emissions today to more than 60% by 2040

The automotive industry could negate the rise in material emissions by using more recycled material such as aluminum and polypropylene. Manufacturers should especially turn to recyclables for areas of the car that are not clearly visible. Achieving large-scale decarbonization will be a long-term endeavor and will require efforts from multiple players on the supply chain. As well, these efforts may not lead to a cost-positive outcome immediately. 

Making the switch to electric vehicles is a prominent stance that policymakers will push as countries, like Canada, try to meet their net-zero emission targets. In June, the federal government set a goal for all new light-duty cars and passenger truck sales to be zero-emission by 2035. Currently, Canada’s EV market is quite small in comparison to the United States and European countries. Electric vehicle purchases represent somewhere between 5-10% of new vehicle sales in Canada.

To meet these climate goals, batteries in EV’s will need to be designed with the intent of recycling and reusing at the end of their lives. For this to happen, manufacturers need to take accountability and responsibility for recycling. This approach can be found in China and is known as “closing the loop.” This circularity will need to be ingrained in North American business models before EV’s can be fully green.

Photo by Claudio Schwarz on Unsplash

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