Should You Buy An Electric Car To Reduce Your Environmental Impact?

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Photo by Andrew Roberts on Unsplash

Electric cars are still a fairly new arrival in the automotive industry, but it’s clear that they’re starting to rapidly increase in popularity —the electric vehicles market has grown by 19% in the past year, and by the end of September 2019 there were 240,000 electric cars on the road in the UK.

And it doesn’t look like this will slow down. As the electric cars become cheaper to buy and as motorists become more environmentally conscious and want to ditch their petrol-guzzling older models, we’re likely to see further growth. A 2018 survey by car insurance company Admiral found that 46% of British motorists are now concerned of the environmental impact of their car, and 53% of them are considering a hybrid for their next car.

They’re billed as being a clean, green alternative to traditional cars, allowing us to continue using the roads as much as we love to, but without the detrimental environmental effects that come with it.

But are electric cars actually any better for the environment in reality? And should you swap to an electric car to reduce your own environmental impact?

Electric cars are definitely better for emissions

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Photo by Matt Boitor on Unsplash

The reason that electric cars are commonly seen as a great solution to climate change comes down to their emissions.

Traditional car engines use petrol or diesel as fuel, burning them inside the engine to create energy which allows the car to move. Petrol and diesel are both made from crude oil, a fossil fuel found naturally below the earth’s surface, which emits carbon dioxide when burned — a greenhouse gas.

This carbon dioxide (along with nitrogen, water vapour, and small amounts of other gases) is what comes out of a car’s exhaust. As well as being a major contributor towards global warming and climate change, exhaust emissions also cause air pollution and smog in cities across the world, causing health issues from asthma to dementia to lung cancer.

Electric vehicles completely remove this problem. Instead of an engine which burns fuel, they run by turning electrical energy into movement using an electric motor, which is powered by a battery. No burning of fuels means no direct emissions from the running of the car, which is why you’ll see electric vehicles branded as ‘zero emissions’ or ‘carbon neutral’.

But…

What about the emissions from manufacturing?

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Photo by milan degraeve on Unsplash

Unfortunately, direct emissions are not the only jigsaw piece — even if that’s all the marketing focuses on.

This is where it all gets a bit complicated. It’s very difficult to compare the overall environmental impact of two different products once you start considering the materials and production of each individual part. One infamous study from the German thinktank Institute for Economic Research (IFO) found that electric vehicles could actually be responsible for more emissions than a diesel car once you bring production into the picture:

“The CO2 emissions of battery-electric vehicles are, in the best case, slightly higher than those of a diesel engine.”

Following the publication of this study, though, there was a lot of controversy and rebuttal from within the research community — arguing that each model is different and that it depends on the life expectancy of the vehicle, and so you can’t make this kind of sweeping statement.

There’s no doubt that making electric cars uses a lot of energy. Almost definitely more than the amount needed to make a traditional car with a gasoline engine. This is because they need to be light, which means manufacturing high-performing metals. They’re also still fairly new to the market, which means there hasn’t been as much time to make the process as efficient as possible.

Plus, there are huge question marks around the use of batteries currently used to power electric motors. Batteries need metal for production, and most commonly use lithium or cobalt — cobalt demand tripled between 2012 and 2017, and is set to double again by 2020.

There are a couple of issues with this. The first is how much we come to rely on these metals. They’re not particularly rare, but raises questions about how much we should be continually extracting materials from our earth’s crust to use for human gain. The second issue is that the mining of these metals often brings about questions of human rights for the workers involved. 50–60% of all cobalt mining takes place in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). UNICEF have found 40,000 children employed in cobalt mining in the DRC, paid on average $1–2 dollars per day.

This is why Tesla recently committed to sourcing materials for its new production factory, the Gigafactory, from North America. They have begun exploring lithium deposits in northern Nevada and Mexico to do so — although any cobalt used by Tesla is likely still produced in the DRC.

Is it a good solution to simply replace our dependence on the earth’s fossil fuels with a new dependence on the earth’s metals?

On top of these moral questions comes the manufacturing process itself. Extracting raw metals from the earth’s crust and then turning them into something which can be used to create a car uses a huge amount of energy. Most of the energy we use still comes from fossil fuels, and so the emissions from this process are significant.

And that isn’t all…

Where does the electricity come from?

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Photo by Fré Sonneveld on Unsplash

Earlier in this post we discussed the emissions (or lack of) from electric vehicles. This is due to their using electricity as a source of energy, rather than burning fuel, releasing no emissions.

But electricity isn’t necessarily a perfect energy source when it comes to the environment. Although it doesn’t produce emissions during use, electricity does require a source of energy to be made in the first place. Therefore, it can only be described ‘green’ and ‘clean’ if the energy source used is a renewable source. Currently, the majority of our electricity is still made using non renewable energy (i.e. the burning of fossil fuels). In the UK in 2018 fossil fuels still accounted for 79.4% of the total energy produced, with an overall increase in fossil fuel production from the previous year.

So should you swap to an electric car?

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Photo by Taiga Motors on Unsplash

There’s currently no clear answer to this question. There are so many variables in terms of how and where a car is manufactured that it’s impossible to tell. What is clear, though, is that it isn’t as simple as the ‘zero carbon’ marketing may suggest, and that swapping to an electric car may not actually reduce your individual environmental impact by very much.

Ultimately, producing something brand new is always going to be costly in terms of expending energy and using up the earth’s resources. For this reason, we shouldn’t be wasting these resources, and should ensure that we use every product to its full capacity.

This means that if you have an existing petrol/diesel car which still has life left in it (even if it isn’t super efficient in terms of fuel consumption and emissions) then it’s probably better to keep it running as long as you can. But when you do get to the point when you need to replace it, then it’s better to replace it with a new electric car than a petrol or diesel car. This is because electric vehicles have lower emissions across their lifetime than conventional models because they don’t burn fuels to generate energy.

As demand increases and technology improves and becomes more efficient we will likely see the emissions from manufacture, as well as growth in terms of renewable energy sources.

And this is why we can’t view electric cars as a solution to climate change on their own. Electric cars are only useful and sustainable if we also decarbonise our energy usage, switching to 100% renewable sources of energy.

That means that, as it stands, the best way that you can reduce your personal emissions from your car, is to reduce the amount that you use it. Opt for walking or cycling for shorter distances, and public transport for longer trips. Only use your car when you have no other choice, and try not to use it alone — share your car and offer lifts to reduce the need for individual cars and inefficient one-person trips.

If you liked this post, you might also like my posts on other common decisions which influence your environmental impact:

Ramblings on communication and our climate crisis🌱

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