Green cars have captivated the fascination of the world since they took to the road in the 2000s. The obsession with clean transportation has grown so much that even the biggest automakers have expressed their commitment to building fully electric cars and trucks—including green versions of their best-selling nameplates.
As more people buy into the promise of eco-friendly transportation, skeptics of the environmental impact of switching to electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles have also grown in numbers. There is growing concern that increasing the production of these vehicles negates the benefits of doing away with an internal fuel combustion engine. This leads us to the big question—just how eco-friendly are green cars?
The Two Types of Vehicle Emissions
Before we dive into the pros and cons of electric cars versus gas-powered vehicles, we must first distinguish the two types of vehicle emissions that impact the environment. Vehicle emissions can be categorized into two: direct and life-cycle emissions.
- Direct Emissions
Direct emissions, otherwise known as tailpipe emissions, are what most people think of when they talk about electric cars vs. gas cars. These are the pollutants and greenhouse gases emitted through the tailpipe, through evaporation from the fuel system, and while filling up your gas tank.
Gasoline and diesel-powered engines are known to emit pollutants like nitrogen oxide—a smog-forming pollutant that is hazardous to our health. They also contribute to the production of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide.
Unlike vehicles that use an internal combustion engine powered by fuel, electric vehicles have zero direct emissions. Plug-in hybrids, on the other hand, still produce emissions, but fewer than conventionally powered vehicles, since hybrids have the option to switch from an internal combustion engine to an electric motor in order to run more efficiently and save on fuel consumption.
- Life-cycle emissions
Life-cycle emissions refer to the pollutants and greenhouse gases produced at every stage of the vehicle’s life span. These include emissions from material sourcing, vehicle production, distribution, use, all the way up to its disposal. For vehicles with internal combustion engines, the bulk of its life-cycle emissions comes from the process of petroleum extraction, gasoline refinement, and gas distribution.
While the benefits of zero direct emissions from electric vehicles are generally accepted, there is much debate about the overall impact of its life-cycle emissions to the environment. Some vouch for their positive impact on reducing pollution and slowing down climate change. However, there is growing concern that emissions tied to vehicle production make them no different or even worse than conventional vehicles.
Electric Vehicles and their Environmental Impact: Points of Contention
The U.S. government has done its part in pushing more Americans to make the switch to electric cars. Federal tax credits of up to $7,500 and purchase rebates of up to $5,000 in several states make purchasing an electric vehicle seem like a great deal—especially for something that will supposedly also benefit the environment.
While these cost savings seem great, there’s the risk of overlooking potentially negative effects to the environment because of how these vehicles are marketed to consumers to make them feel good about the “green” alternative. Upon closer inspection, there is more to the technology that must be weighed in order to truly understand the real environmental impact of green cars.
Here are just a few points of debate regarding electric vehicles (or EVs):
- The electricity that powers EVs is still partly produced by burning fossil fuels.
In the U.S., the majority of EVs are powered by plugging into the electrical grid. Looking at the current mix of power sources, you may be disappointed to know that burning fossil fuels remains the main source of electricity for the country. The second-largest power source is coal, and coming in at third is nuclear power, which has its own set of byproducts that worry environmentalists.
In the next 10 years, renewable power sources will only be at 30% in the national electrical grid’s power mix. As more people purchase green cars, the demand for electricity will only increase. As long as the power grid relies on traditional energy sources, the life-cycle emissions of EVs will continue to contribute to pollution and climate change.
- Manufacturing lithium-ion batteries consumes a significant amount of energy, and the process is not necessarily clean.
Another pressing concern about EVs is the impact of its production on the environment. One of the main issues revolves around the emissions produced while manufacturing the batteries that power these cars’ electric motors.
The production of lithium-ion batteries requires the mining and refining of rare earth metals such as nickel and cobalt. This process requires high heat and sterile conditions, consuming a significant amount of energy derived from power sources that are far from being considered “clean.”
Although Tesla has committed to producing its batteries using 100% renewable energy at their Gigafactory in the U.S., they are the exception and not the rule. Most automakers that build EVs source their batteries from facilities located in Asian countries like Japan, South Korea, and China. Like most of the U.S. and Europe, these countries continue to rely on burning fossil fuels as their main energy source.
Roughly half of the emissions related to lithium-ion battery production is generated from the electricity used to manufacture it. That being said, there is a need to move towards cleaner energy alternatives in order to create more efficient power plants that can produce cleaner batteries.
The International Council on Clean Transportation (or ICCT) approximates a 17% decrease in battery manufacturing emissions within a decade if carbon emissions from electricity production are reduced by 30%.
- Large-scale battery recycling for EVs and hybrids is not yet feasible.
A popular suggestion for mitigating the effects of harmful emissions from lithium-ion battery manufacturing is to recycle existing batteries. However, this undertaking will only become feasible once more people choose EVs and plug-in hybrids over conventional gas-powered vehicles.
Creating an effective large-scale recycling scheme is no easy feat. The materials used in electric vehicle batteries are currently too varied. There is a need to standardize battery chemistry, structure, and production in order for the commercial viability of recycling to improve.
In addition, the extraction and manipulation of batteries to reuse their metals and reduce the need for mining will also require the use of traditional power sources, which could lessen recycling’s positive impact to the environment.
Is there hope for electric vehicles to be completely green?
At the rate things are going, more electric vehicles will be seen on American roads in the next few years. The question is whether or not the life-cycle emissions of these vehicles can be reduced to the point where we can say that they significantly benefit the environment compared to cars that use internal combustion engines. As it stands, untangling green cars’ production from conventional power sources is the only solution, but as we have seen, the challenge is more complex than can be gleaned at first glance. Can the country transition to 100% renewable energy? That’s another complicated debate on its own.