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Electric Future: Stalled car revolution

How green are electric vehicles?

Believe it or not, if you had been walking through Manhattan in 1900, there is a good chance you would have seen an electric car. Roughly one third of cars on the road in New York back then were electric, while the city’s taxi fleet had 30 electric vehicles (EVs). It was to be a brief heyday.

It was Henry Ford’s Model T – first produced in 1908 – that signalled the beginning of the end of the electric car. Suddenly, petrol-fuelled cars were relatively affordable and, thanks to Ford’s pioneering use of the production line, ubiquitous.

Improved roads and cheaper petrol prices saw the electric car all but disappear by the mid-1930s, and it wasn’t until the 1970s – amid soaring oil prices and gasoline prices – that the potential of EVs began to be seriously considered again.

Today, of course, EVs are a large – and fast growing – segment of the private transportation market. EV sales have grown hugely in recent years – in 2020, EV and hybrids made up more than 10 per cent of total car sales in Europe – and there is a growing political and economic will to transition to EVs.

Ford assembly line: United States, 1930

COP26 saw 24 countries and a group of manufacturers pledge to phase out fossil fuel-powered vehicles by 2040, while 30 countries have agreed to work together to make zero emission vehicles the new normal by making them accessible, affordable, and sustainable in all regions by 2030 or sooner.

While all this is welcome, the reality of EVs is complex, with issues around everything from battery production to the supply chains.

Dr Sergey Paltsev is the Deputy Director of MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, and an EV expert. He believes the biggest misconception around EVs is the idea they are going to decarbonize transport.

Paltsev says: “I have frequently heard the opinion that the world has already found a solution for decarbonizing mobility, and that battery electric cars (BEVs) will soon lead us to an emissions-free transportation system.

“First, progress has been uneven across world regions; while there are some great success stories such as in Norway where uptake of EVs has been significant, many parts of the world have seen a very limited adoption of electric cars.”

Another issue is the source of electricity EVs use, as well as how they are built. “The notion of EVs as ‘zero emission vehicles’ must be properly qualified because of the need to decarbonize electricity production (that EVs use) and account for emissions (and other sustainability issues) during mining of critical minerals and battery production.”

A 2020 UNCTAD report highlighted the issues around battery production and the fact that the raw materials used to produce EV batteries are concentrated in a small number of countries.

For example, two-thirds of all cobalt production (cobalt is necessary for the production of lithium batteries) happens in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

According to UNICEF, about 20 per cent of cobalt supplied from the DRC comes from artisanal mines, where human rights abuses have been reported, and up to 40,000 children work in extremely dangerous conditions for tiny income. Another issue is scarcity: cobalt supply is forecast to be outstripped by demand by 2030 at the latest.

In Chile, lithium mining uses nearly 65 per cent of the water in the country’s Salar de Atamaca region, one of the driest desert areas in the world, to pump out brines from drilled wells.

This has forced local quinoa farmers and llama herders to migrate and abandon ancestral settlements, due to a lack of water. It has also contributed to groundwater depletion and pollution and soil contamination.

“The dramatic growth in EVs makes it extremely important to diversify the supply of critical minerals for batteries and electric motors,” Paltsey says. “In addition, lifecycle accounting of EV environmental impacts raises concerns about water, land and emissions from mining and processing.”

It is not just the production of batteries that is problematic – the disposal of them is also challenging. An EV battery is made up of thousands of components, that propels the car hundreds of kilometres. When an EV battery ends up in a landfill, those same components can release harmful toxins. Recycling too, has been an issue.

“Current EV batteries are not really meant to be recycled,” Dana Thompson, a research fellow at the Faraday Institution, a UK research centre focused on battery issues, told Science Magazine last year.

And while some countries are finally introducing recycling legislation, the disparate nature of EV batteries means it can be hard to create efficient recycling systems. The glue that the batteries are produced with means it can be difficult to take old batteries apart, which results in it being cheaper for manufacturers to manufacture new batteries from scratch than recycle old materials.

Infrastructure too, can be a challenge. Depending on where you are in the world, finding an EV charging station can be an issue, particularly compared to the ubiquitous nature of the petrol station – an illustration of how the transition from a fossil fuel-dependent world to a renewable energy dominated one will take time.

However, it is hoped that as the numbers of EVs on the road increase, the infrastructure will also increase. The International Energy Agency estimates there was 10 million EVs on the road at the end of 2020, with predictions for 25 to 30 million by the end of this year.

“Future estimates depend heavily on continuing and increasing government support as well as anticipated reductions in EV costs,” Paltsev says. “Our projections show that accelerated policy action could increase the global number of EVs in 2030 by an order of magnitude, to about 200 million. In 2050 we estimate more than 1 billion EVs on the road.”

Yet despite this huge jump in EV numbers, it is clear that they won’t be a magic bullet when it comes to sustainable transport.

“We need to stress support for all possible decarbonization options related to transportation, including enhancing public transportation, land-use planning that encourages compact development, and reducing the use of private motorized transport by mode switching to walking, biking and mass transit,” Paltsev says.

This article was originally published on the United Nations Climate Change portal.

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