EV’s don’t save the climate – far from it

“They should all buy an old Defender instead – no car is more sustainable given none has even close to the same lifetime,” laughed the guy next to me at a dinner party quite a few years back. Electric mobility was still young and our discussion had been on Tesla and the future of EV’s in general. In my first post for the year I promised to write less about EV’s going forward as this isn’t the main point of interest for you, dear readers. I will stay true to that promise but before closing out, I actually feel the need to set the record straight on a few things related to electric mobility and sustainable transportation, that somehow never make it into the headlines. All that glitters is not gold, a saying that is definitely applicable to EV’s, but where hard facts are often surprisingly difficult to come by. I’ve tried and suggest we look behind the glossy ads at some facts on electric cars before moving on to happier topics!

The older a car is, the more sustainable it becomes, so this is unwise…

Let me start by saying that I have nothing against EV’s. It’s an interesting technology with far greater efficiency than traditional petrol (3x) and diesel (2x) engines. The immediate and permanent torque is a thrill everytime you experience it, and battery research is progressing fast, with the first solid state batteries perhaps hitting production in 3-4 years. This would be a further boost to the whole EV market given the far greater efficiency and shorter charging times. That’s all great. The issue however is that EV’s are marketed in ads with blue skies and green pastures as the clean alternative to petrol cars. Unfortunately, that’s not true – and quite far from it.

Polestar, Volvo’s EV company, did something very unusual a few weeks ago. They came out and told the world how many kilometres the electrical Polestar 2 needs to be driven to achieve a CO2 advantage over a regular, petrol XC40. The issue comes from the fact that whereas the two cars are similar in construction, producing the battery pack in an EV is a real CO2 bomb. The Swedish Environmental Agency has calculated that a mid-sized car battery pack, such as the one you find in a Polestar 2, causes around 17.5 tons of CO2 emissions during its production, which, as Volvo reported, is equivalent to roughly 78.000 kms in a petrol XC40. So in other words, only from then onwards are you actively contributing to lower CO2 emissions. In a Tesla or other EV with a larger battery pack, the number is even higher. Conservatively assuming 100.000 kms and looking quickly at the 165 Model S currently for sale in Switzerland, only 20% have more than that on the clock, meaning 80% are in other words still in “CO2 deficit” as compared to traditional cars. By the time most of them reach the required mileage, they will have changed owners once or twice.

A Model S battery pack with a total of 15 modules

So far, this is all based on the assumption that the electricity you charge your EV with is clean, so that no further emissions are caused once the car hits the road. That of course depends on where you live. Here in Switzerland where roughly 60% of energy comes from water and around 30% from nuclear (with in other words less than 10% coming from renewables), it usually is. The same is generally true for the Nordics and France, a champion of nuclear power (71% of the energy mix) and renewables (23%). In the US, more than 50% of electricity still comes from fossil fuels and in Germany, while the mix includes a whopping 46% of renewables, there is also close to 40% of coal and natural gas (and where exploration of the latter is currently causing a little-discussed environmental catastrophy in Siberia…). The reason for this is Germany’s decision to close nuclear plants, something many other European countries have decided to do as well in the coming years. In some rather large countries therefore, being sure the electricity that goes into your EV is clean is not a given, and will be conditional on your country investing a heck of a lot in renewables over the coming years. Germany’s “Energiewende” has so far cost north of EUR 500bn and has still not managed to lower total emissions, so this will take time – and money.

This would be a really clean, but not very efficient, energy source…

Next to emissions there is also the really dark part of the story, namely metals and other materials of the battery pack. In terms of environmental concerns the two really problematic ones are graphite and cobalt. 54 kgs of graphite go into every Tesla Model S, typically produced in China, but no one can tell you the environmental impact of its production as there are no conclusive studies on this. That itself is rather noteworthy, but those having looked at it all seem to agree that it’s a pretty dirty business with significant emissions of various bad stuff. As for cobalt, we all have a few grams of it in our mobile phones, but in a typical EV there is 5-10 kgs. Looking just at Tesla’s production of around 500.000 EV’s in 2020, that’s a whopping 2.500-5.000 tonnes of cobalt for the cars built in 2020 alone, usually originating in Congo, one of Africa’s poorest countries that makes up 60% of global cobalt production, with Chinese mining companies being the largest operators. The human cost of these mines has been highlighted many times, as has the pollution of water systems, displacement of villages and miserable working conditions. It’s a very sad story, unlikely to change in the short term.

A cobalt digger in Congo, Not a picture you will see in an EV brochure (Source: Washington Post).

Traditional cars pollute and our efforts should no doubt focus on reducing all types of emissions (CO2 and other) of the transportation sector. EV’s are however not the simple solution they are portrayed to be. As per today, from an environmental point of view, a large majority of EV drivers would have done the planet a greater service had they bought a conventional, used car, and that will remain the case for quite some time. As the world moves towards more renewables, electric mobility will improve on the whole, but without fundamental progress to our battery technology, some serious issues will remain. Therefore, as an example, it’s a bit sad how little alternative, clean technogies such as fuel cell / hydrogen cars are discussed.

Until we get there, don’t buy the old Defender my table neighbour suggested, as that generation of diesel engines is quite a dirty bunch. Do however by yourself a relatively modern used car and for some of the money you save, a good bike for shorter transport. It will both be better for the planet than a new EV, and also contribute to your fitness while saving you quite a lot of money!