In 2017, IVL, the Swedish Environmental Research Institute, issued a report saying the manufacture of lithium-ion batteries was responsible for 200 kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions for every kilowatt-hour produced. That figure has been seized upon by fossil fuel advocates as proof that electric cars are not nearly as “green” as electric vehicle advocates say they are.
This month, IVL updated its findings from 2017 in light of current experience and found carbon emissions from making lithium-ion batteries are much lower today than they were two years ago. The biggest factor in the decline in emissions is the source of electricity used in the manufacturing process. Today, carbon emissions from battery manufacture range from a low of 61 kilograms per kilowatt-hour to a high of 106 kilograms per kilowatt-hour.
The low end of the scale is being set by companies like Northvolt that use 100% renewable energy to manufacture their batteries. “It is really very clear that fossil fuel free electricity can improve the environmental impact of a whole range of products,” says Helle Herk-Hansen. A secondary but important point to keep in mind is that electric cars get greener in operation the more zero emissions electricity is used to recharge their batteries. Gasoline and diesel powered vehicles only get dirtier as they age and accumulate miles. An ICE vehicle runs cleanest when it is new and it is all downhill from there.
The IVL report explores the environmental impacts of mining and refining raw materials, manufacturing battery cells, and assembling cells into battery packs. “The lowering of the high value is mainly due to improved efficiency in cell production. Another reason for a decrease is that the emissions from recycling are not included in the new range,” the researchers say. Recycling emissions were about 15 kilograms of carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour in the 2017 report. The new report concludes with the following statement.
It is motivating to see that the estimated GHG values for battery production have decreased, but it is also important to continue research and development into resource-risks and handling of battery materials. Recycling will become more important in the future as the batteries produced today will all eventually reach their end-of-life. When they do, it will become a higher priority to take responsibility from their resource flows.
There is still a need for more accurate and detailed data, especially since the different production steps can be performed in different ways with different efficiencies. Also, data for electronics production still needs to become better. More information on the supply risks of different metals is also needed, as well as traceability of the metals, so that sustainable production can eventually be achieved and guaranteed.
There’s a lot more to creating a sustainable battery supply for zero emissions vehicles than many of us realize.