Context Matters: Environmental Impacts Of EV Production

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It’s common for opponents of electric vehicles to divert attention to the negative impacts of electric car production. Articles like this one from a week ago in The Guardian are a good example. Instead of comparing the overall impacts of internal combustion engine (ICE) cars with those of EVs, they want us to look at the impacts in a vacuum. When taken in context, we can see the facts for what they really are.

This doesn’t mean we should ignore the impacts of EV production. Local environmental impacts, economic injustices, and even slavery-like arrangements in supply chains are all things we should be working to improve upon or eliminate. Taken in context, though, negative impacts aren’t a good reason to keep the internal combustion status quo.

We recently covered this matter here and here in response to some great new studies, but we’re now compelled to come back to the topic again.

Whenever you encounter an article about the environmental impacts of EVs, here are a few facts to keep in mind and a few questions to ask while reading, so you can make sure you consider the facts in context.

Some Key Facts Of EV Production

First off, don’t forget that lithium is only needed once in the lifetime of most electric vehicles. Once the lithium is mined, processed, and built into an EV’s battery pack, that lithium will be used over and over for hundreds of thousands of miles. Improving battery chemistries are likely to push the lifespan of an EV to as much as a million miles. An ICE car, on the other hand, will need oil over and over again as long as it’s driven, and will need a new engine after 200-300k miles (assuming it’s a really special car and isn’t just scrapped completely).

Second, an EV only needs around 8 kg (17.6 pounds) of lithium for the entire battery pack, which weighs hundreds of pounds (this does get mentioned in the article I linked). Most of a battery’s weight is other metals, which were nearly all already being mined around the world for a variety of purposes. The big exception is cobalt, and battery manufacturers are working to reduce and eliminate cobalt in battery chemistries. When combined with the fact that this small amount of lithium is needed once per lifetime in most EVs, the overall impacts aren’t nearly as great as oil production.

Third, lithium recycling is under active development. While it’s not cost effective today, that is changing as demand for lithium increases and recycling methods improve. Even if an automaker chose to use recycled lithium, the impact to the car’s overall cost wouldn’t be much, and many prospective buyers would probably want to pay extra to reduce the overall environmental impacts.

Finally, the impact of charging an EV shouldn’t be compared directly to what it takes to feed gasoline engines. An EV converts around 90% of the electricity to mechanical energy used to push the vehicle while an ICE engine wastes 2/3 to 3/4 of the energy making waste heat. While an EV does use a lot of electricity compared to the laptop I’m writing this on, and the phone or tablet you’re likely reading this on, the amount of fossil fuels burned to create the electricity are far lower than what it would take to directly drive the car with an ICE engine.

On top of that, the multi-million dollar engines used at power plants are far more efficient than the relatively cheap piston engines in most ICE cars. Nobody would spend the kind of money it would take to make a super efficient ICE engine for a car, but when the cost is split with other EV drivers, homes, businesses, and even people in other states, it’s worthwhile to have the best engines possible in power plants.

It’s also mostly impossible to change the fuels an ICE car takes after it’s built. Yes, you can convert from gasoline to some other flammable liquid or gas (with enough money for parts), but you can’t feed an ICE engine electricity, sunlight, hydroelectric force, or wind power. The mix of cleaner fuels your EV can indirectly accept will change over the life of the car while the gasoline car can’t ever kick its fossil fuel habit.

You can even change what fuels your EV yourself by getting solar panels at home. You’ll never make your own gasoline at home.

Some Questions to Ask When Reading These Articles

The first big question to ask is: “Does the writer or the person sharing this really care?”

If your friend who drives an illegally modified F350 that spews soot all over your neighborhood wants to tell you about an EV’s environmental impacts, don’t take that at face value. If they really cared, they would be making different choices. You can’t let them shame you when they have no shame themselves.

A related question: “Who wrote or funded this?”

In some cases, the impacts are brought by people who really do care. The impacts are real, and there are people who are negatively impacted. The reason for caring is important, though. If a fossil fuel company or ICE manufacturer tells you EVs are dirty, they do care, but only because it hits them in the pocketbook. If an anarcho-primitivist bashes EVs, they care, but only because they have unrealistic expectations about the environment (we can’t all go back to living in huts and expect to have a life expectancy above past hunter-gatherer societies).

You might also ask: “Did the author rob facts of context?”

Did they compare the impacts of EVs to the alternatives in a fair way, or did they try to compare an apple to a barrel of oranges? Did the author discuss improvement efforts? In the case of the article I linked, they did mention recycling and other efforts.

Finally, ask: “Were there any omissions or lies?”

In the case of the article I linked, that’s not a problem. The author was truthful. In other cases, articles and videos are total anti-EV smears. For example, Prager U (a YouTube channel trying to act like a university) showed images of a copper mine when trying to tell people about the impacts of lithium mining. While some lithium mining happens in abandoned copper mines, they are rarely dug as open pits for a new lithium mine.

With a few key facts and some critical questions to ask, you’re ready to face articles about the environmental impacts of EVs, but don’t forget that people rarely reason their way out of a position they didn’t reason their way into. These ideas are good for understanding facts in context, but probably won’t prove useful for internet debates. As always, YMMV.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

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