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Automated Driving 7 min read

How environmentally-friendly are EVs really?

How environmentally-friendly are EVs really?

Global sales of EVs are rising dramatically. But are they better for the planet when you take production, battery life, and the entire lifecycle into account?

As nations rush to meet their zero-emissions targets, electric vehicle (EV) sales rose to almost three million last year.

Businesses keen to prove their sustainability credentials — and in some cases, save money — are also switching to electric fleets. Even the Pope is getting an electric Popemobile, made by Henry Fisker. Legislation, including the EU's vow to get 30 million electric cars on the road by 2030, is giving EVs an extra push in many regions.

But when the whole lifecycle of an EV is taken into account, including manufacturing, mining of materials, batteries and the source of the electricity itself, can they really be said to produce no emissions at all?

Professor Anders Hammer Strømman has worked in the field of lifecycle assessment for several decades. Currently with the Industrial Ecology Programme at NTNU, he specializes in energy and transportation. Professor Strømman spoke to HERE360 about the complexities of assessing the green credentials of EVs – and explained why the picture is a positive one overall.

“Many of the low emissions technologies involve shifting emissions from the operation to the production," he said. “The emissions are moved upstream in the value chain. Going from direct emissions to indirect emissions is a general trait of many of the green technologies we are pursuing."

He said the upfront emissions are higher with electric vehicles as they are today than with conventional vehicles.

“However, over the lifetime, in a typical European setting, you would generally be better with an electric vehicle," he said.

Electric vehicle sales rose by 43% last year globally.

Look at the whole lifecycle

Vehicle 'lifecycle analyses' take account of all the emissions right the way from the mining of ores, to the manufacture of vehicles and batteries to the energy consumption of gas, diesel, or electricity. Thankfully, these show large overall CO2 savings for EVs compared to conventional vehicles.

The challenge is to improve EV battery technology,  the manufacturing process and the share of renewables in the energy mix. If these things happen as they are predicted to do, EVs will only carry on getting cleaner.

Most batteries used in EVs need about 20 minerals including nickel, cobalt and manganese, and the process for manufacturing them can be carbon-intensive.

The type of energy used in the manufacturing process makes a difference. “It is difficult to produce a green product in a dirty economy," Professor Strømman said. “Ideally, we want to move toward a future where we are producing electric vehicles in a low carbon manner and they're operating also in a low carbon electricity grid."

One study suggests that CO2 emissions from electric car production are 59% higher than the level in the production of traditional internal combustion engine vehicles.

However, once the EV is ready to drive, most of its emissions have already been generated. With an internal combustion engine vehicle, that process is only just beginning.

Did you know the transportation sector releases 6 gigatons of CO2 into the air each year?

Better batteries

Most emissions in the production of EVs are produced in the battery manufacturing phase.

“If we look at the battery industry over the last decade, it has been focused on getting production up and running, getting market positions, and energy and material efficiencies have perhaps not been as high on the priority list," Professor Strømman told HERE360.

As the battery production market becomes more established, that will likely change. Professor Strømman said there is already a move towards more energy-efficient, less carbon-intensive battery production.

The batteries in EVs are usually lithium-based, but alternatives include hydrogen fuel cells. These are a long way from becoming mainstream, however.

“We once thought we would be using a completely different set of technologies [to make EV batteries]. But it's more about bringing the cost down on improvements to the same chemistry that we had five-10 years ago," he explained.

This map, based on HERE location data, shows the availability of charging stations for EVs in the US.

To increase vehicle range, batteries are getting bigger and lasting longer, increasing their potential for use in larger vehicles.

Range anxiety has long been a concern for consumers and fleet managers about converting to EVs.

However, the availability of charging stations is increasing, as well as technology such as HERE EV Charge Points.

With HERE EV Charge Points, you can locate the right EV charge station based on your connector type, required voltage, pricing and other important attributes. It covers more than 150,000 stations worldwide in more than 60 countries.

With improved charging options, fleets can run on electricity easily. For example, buses in Trondheim, Norway, where Professor Strømman is based, charge every time they are at a bus stop.

But he said there would need to be “a significant leap" in battery technology to make electric aviation, shipping and heavy-duty transport possible.

“The question is how much of the freight sector can be electrified?" he said. It is a question that we should see an answer to in the coming decades.

In the meantime, the industry is developing ways of recycling EV batteries.

Beyond electric dreams

According to Professor Strømman, all options must stay on the table if we are to reach emissions targets.

Other kinds of fuels including e-fuels and biofuels should be explored — as well as alternative ways of moving goods and people.

“We have a steep transition to get through," he said. “We will still have to look at options other than electrification for de-carbonizing some parts of the transportation sector. We should still be pursuing a broad spectrum of options and seeing how we can improve on them.“

Reducing demand by encouraging alternatives to the individual vehicle, such as car-sharing, walking, cycling or scooters is one option.

Improving public transport options and multimodal ways of getting around could also encourage people to use cars less often.

“Mobility-as-a-Service is something we need to pursue," Professor Strømman said. “There is a large share of the population which would be willing to forego a car if the right systems are in place.

“Our industry leaders and policymakers, as well as those in academia, have many challenges and a lot of maneuvering to do to get things right. But broadly speaking electrification of light-duty vehicles seems to be a way of heading in the right direction."

Find an EV charging station using location data.

Beth McLoughlin 2023

Beth McLoughlin

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