Lately, vehicles whizzing past us on the streets without a sound has been a common sight. They look futuristic and have instant acceleration. Without the engines and fuel slots, the engine compartments make empty spaces for the capacity of carrying luggage. For a child, it might look magical and wonder how the car is running. It looks so out of convention compared to what we are used to.
I am indeed referring to electric vehicles. They seem to have occupied our streets and minds. The innovation of electric vehicles has been seen as a milestone. They are seen as something that could promise a greener future by replacing existing combustion-based vehicles. However, is everything spoken about electric vehicles true? Are all claims about electric vehicles having zero emission true?
Electric vehicles are similar to conventional vehicles on the outside. They use the same transmission, and the same body, almost everything is the same except the engine. The engine in a normal vehicle is called an internal combustion engine (ICE) as it generates power through the combustion of fuel. In an electric vehicle, there is no engine at the front, instead, there is a battery at the floor bed of the car. This battery is made of lithium which is a rare earth metal. The battery powers the transmission of the car to run it.
An ICE burns the fuel inside it. As a by-product of the chemical reaction, it releases various pollutants like nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide. These gases contribute to air pollution which eventually causes respiratory illnesses in humans. An electric vehicle, on the other hand, does not produce any pollutants. The battery is connected directly to a motor that drives the car. A chemical reaction happens inside the battery that makes the current flow but this reaction does not generate any pollutants2. Since no pollutants are generated, it is claimed that electric vehicles have zero emissions. But is it true?
Have you wondered how the batteries in electric vehicles are charged? The batteries are charged through the local grid. In India, coal contributes to 75% of the total power generation6. This means that there is a very good chance that the electricity that charges the battery in the car was generated through burning coal. Since coal is the actual source of energy for the battery, electric vehicles are not completely emission-free. An all-electric Tata Nexon generates about 80 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer considering coal was used to generate electricity and charge the batteries. A normal car like a Honda City that has an ICE generates about 130 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer1. So, it can be gathered that an electric vehicle is still clearly greener considering that it conserves 50 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer5. But have we accounted all possible emissions?
No, we have not accounted for the environmental cost of building a Lithium-ion battery which is what is generally used in electric cars. To build a lithium-ion battery, along with lithium, other metals required are manganese, cobalt, and nickel. The most important element in this being lithium. The bulk of the lithium reserves of the world is found in South America’s salt flats in the Andean region. The Andean region is spread across Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile. To produce a tonne of lithium, 2 million litres of water is required1. This water is sourced from local freshwater reserves. This over some time leads to the depletion of groundwater levels which causes problems for farmers and others who live around it. Freshwater itself is a very scarce resource and such relentless usage will impact the environment grossly. Similarly, the Democratic Republic of Congo produces 70% of the world’s cobalt4. Due to lax regulations and norms in the country, the extraction and refinement of the metal is not done properly. The dust from the mines leads to respiratory issues in the workers and residents of the city. Once extracted, the leftovers are not even treated correctly, they are just dumped in rivers, further destroying the aquatic ecosystem. The other metals are no better.
The issues with batteries do not end here. A huge problem with the safe disposal of batteries has surfaced. As of now, used batteries are dumped in landfills without any treatment. The contents of the battery consisting of heavy metals end up leaking into the groundwater of the area. This leads to the contamination of drinking water for the local population causing serious diseases like arsenic poisoning which slowly kills people. While the government has recently come up with Battery Management Waste Rules, 2022 to safely dispose of batteries3. Enforcement of such laws is a whole new story. Effective enforcement of environmental laws is lagging and therefore, nothing new is expected from this new law.
When we account for the environmental destruction and relentless use of resources like water in generating lithium and other metals for the battery, we must ask ourselves if it is at all worth it. In terms of emissions, if the electricity that powers the batteries is produced from renewable energies, then theoretically, yes, the electric vehicle would have zero emissions. However, does the act of battery making commensurate with its result of disrupting the environmental sanctity? Think about it!
Governments all around the world must collectively frame laws for safe extraction, refinement, and disposal of these metals. We must support research to find other methods of extraction that are less resource intensive. Along with these changes, we must shift to electricity generated from green sources such as solar, wind, etc. to charge the batteries. Only then can we claim that electric vehicles generate zero emissions.