Transport accounts for around 20% of global CO2 emissions. Road transport makes up around 75% of these, making vehicles a significant consideration as we build a better future. As alternative options continue to become available, it’s worth looking at what this may mean.
The International Energy Agency predicts that the number of electric vehicles on roads is expected to hit 145 million by 2030. In the UK alone the National Grid predicts there will be 36 million electric vehicles on roads by 2040, as the government plans to ban new petrol and diesel sales from 2030.
It seems electric vehicles (aka EVs) will be a key feature of a decarbonised transport system. In turn, these changes will impact a vast array of other fields including energy production, metals and mining, circular economies, and global trade and transport.
But what do EVs actually entail? Here’s what we know about emissions, manufacturing, cost, and what needs to improve.
Types of electric vehicles
The main forms of EV include:
- Battery-electric vehicle (BEV): a 100% electric car, charged by an external power source that doesn’t produce any tailpipe emissions. Sometimes referred to as a ‘pure’ electric vehicle.
- Plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV): a car with a battery, electric drive motor and internal combustion engine (ICE). It can be driven using the ICE, the electric drive motor, or both, and can be recharged from an external power source. They often have a pure-electric range of up to 50 miles, with longer journeys continuing in hybrid mode.
- Extended range electric vehicle (E-REV): A version of plug-in hybrid that combines a battery, an electric drive motor and a small petrol or diesel generator with a range of 150-300 miles. The electric motor always drives the wheels, with the ICE acting as a generator when the battery is depleted.
Emissions from EVS
In 2020 researchers from the universities of Cambridge, Exeter and Nijmegen found that in 95% of the world, driving an electric car is better for the environment than driving a traditional car.
Another term of measurement is well-to-wheel emissions. For petrol or diesel vehicles this is calculated by looking at all emissions caused by extracting and refining fuel and transport to fuelling stations, alongside when fuel is used in a car itself. For an electric vehicle, emissions for electricity generation and conversion to miles within the vehicle are considered. According to these metrics, a 2017 UK Government study found that petrol vehicles produce the most CO2 at 211g per kilometre, while diesel vehicles emitted 179g. In comparison, an EV produced 73g of CO2 per kilometre.
When it comes to efficiency, EVs convert over 77% of electrical energy from the grid to power at the wheels, while conventional vehicles only convert around 12 – 30% of the energy stored in fuel. This is because EVs convert electricity directly into movement rather than burning fuel to create heat, which is then converted to motion. Plus when an EV brakes its energy is recovered and put back into the battery, making it available to help it accelerate again. In a conventional car this energy is converted into heat by the brakes, then wasted. Though EVs will still produce some particulate pollution from tyre and brake wear, brake wear is also reduced due to regenerative braking.
While most of an EV’s emissions come from the manufacturing process (more on this later), once it’s on the road most of its emissions have already been produced. For traditional cars, this is just the beginning.
However, it’s important to consider the source of the electricity used to charge an EV. Every region and country has different methods of generating energy, and charging an electric car with power from fossil fuels isn’t enough. The adoption of electric vehicles only works in tandem with a decarbonised energy system and a just transition that eradicates dependence on fossil fuels.
In 2019 the UK Power Networks estimated that they had 63,000 EVs charging from their networks, with this number predicted to rise to 4.1 million by 2030.
The good news is, estimates show that if the entire UK switched from traditional vehicles to electric overnight, we would only experience a 10% increase in energy demand, fitting comfortably within the grid’s capacity. Peak time electrical demand is now reported to be 16% less than 20 years ago thanks to improvements in energy efficiency. The US grid is a similar story, with a prediction that if 80% of the people owned an EV it would translate into a 10-15% increase in electricity consumption.
What would become essential, however, is forecasting fluctuating demand times. Steady growth in EV adoption allows time for grids to understand national charging patterns and plan ahead. Additionally, alongside additional generating capacity when needed, innovations such as smart charging and vehicle-to-grid (V2G) will be key to ensuring electricity supply meets demand.
Smart charging requires infrastructure and tariffs that reward EV owners with lower costs if they charge at times when there is surplus electricity, based on supply and demand within the network.
For example, a user that has opted for a smart tariff might return home at 6pm and plug his or her EV in, but it might not start charging until later that evening when demand for electricity has fallen and the electricity supplier has reduced its prices accordingly.
Smart charging benefits EV operators as they pay less for their electricity but also benefits electricity suppliers because reducing peak electricity demand could reduce the required investment in new generating capacity and network reinforcement.
Vehicle-to-grid takes this even further. At times of high demand, electricity can flow out of EV batteries into the grid to meet demand, essentially using EVs for energy storage when not in use.
Apps like WhenToPlugIn already help owners manage electricity use, while the UK Government have introduced Electric Vehicle Smart Charge Points Regulations. These ensure EV charge points have smart functionality; allowing charging to happen when there is less demand on the grid, or when more renewable electricity is available. A car will charge when plugged in, but can automatically pause during peaks when demand is highest and energy is most expensive.
EV charging can vary widely depending on battery size and the speed of the charging point. However, a rapid charger at a service station can charge a car in about 30 minutes, and the National Grid has proposed the best locations to ensure that nobody on major roads is further than 50 miles from ultra-rapid charging. In the UK you can find over 30,000 charge points across the country (use a map such as Zap-Map or Charge Place Scotland to plan ahead), and if you have off-street parking you can install your own charge point at home.
Research from Deloitte estimates around 30,000 new charging points will be needed by 2030, but the current rate of 200 charging points being added in 30 days will easily meet demand. And, while electric charging takes longer, on longer trips most people stop for 15-20 minutes at service stations anyway. With rapid charging, a car can be fully recharged while drivers simply use the toilet and grab refreshments.
While an electric car is still pricier up front, research suggests that owners will save money in the long term. maintenance, fuel and tax costs for an electric vehicle are cheaper than petrol or diesel models. Plus:
- There are fewer mechanical components in an EV, which often results in lower servicing and maintenance costs, and fewer breakdowns.
- EVs have a zero rate of vehicle excise duty.
- As of October 2021, only vehicles with zero tailpipe emissions qualify for the cleaner vehicle discount. All other vehicles will be required to pay the Congestion Charge. As more clean air zones are implemented across the UK, EVs will attract lower charges.
- Free parking for EVs is available in some UK towns and cities.
- Insurance premiums are on average cheaper for EVs vs petrol or diesel models
Building an electric car is currently more carbon-intensive than a conventional car, mainly due to the electricity required for manufacturing batteries. A study from the MIT Energy Initiative found that the battery and fuel production for an EV generates higher emissions than the manufacturing of a conventional vehicle, however this is often offset by superior energy efficiency over time.
High emissions in manufacturing are due to EVs relying on rechargeable lithium-ion batteries to run. The process of making those batteries, which includes mining raw materials like cobalt and lithium, production in gigafactories and transportation, is highly energy-intensive. It is believed that, as production increases and renewables power more factories, total emissions per vehicle should decrease. It currently takes an EV around 2 years to offset the production deficit, but this should improve as energy grids decarbonise.
A 2017 study also found that where a battery is manufactured has a large impact on emissions generated. Most battery production currently takes place in China. Older gigafactories in the country are often powered by fossil fuels, meaning batteries built in these factories have larger carbon footprints.
Chinese battery manufacturers produce up to 60 per cent more CO2 during fabrication than ICE engine production, but according to the report, the country’s manufacturers could cut their emissions by up to 66 per cent if they implemented American or European manufacturing techniques
As manufacturing techniques and factories improve, alongside alternative battery options and developments in battery recycling, there’s potential for major reductions in emissions from manufacturing in China and across the globe.
Demand for metals
In a world with lots of EVs, demand will also be high for raw materials like lithium, cobalt, nickel, rare earths, and graphite.
Lithium makes up 12 percent of the battery cost and today, approximately 14 percent of lithium demand comes directly from the electric vehicle sector. That share is forecast to reach 40 percent by 2025. But lithium is not alone. Demand for cobalt and rare earths will also skyrocket, which is where the real environmental and geopolitical knock-on effects will need to be watched closely.
Lithium is relatively plentiful, but the main challenges are both scaling the extraction process and lack of sustainable and ethical supply chains. Similarly, cobalt, which is also key to battery technology, isn’t difficult to mine but is found predominantly in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the mining industry has had significant issues with mismanagement, corruption, violence, oppression and labour abuse, including child labour.
Governments, manufacturers and other organisations are addressing these concerns through both introducing stricter regulations for mineral-producing countries to prevent humanitarian and environmental exploitation, and reducing reliance on cobalt and other rare materials for batteries. However, more still needs to be done. These issues can’t be ignored in the name of a ‘green future’, because this isn’t true climate justice. Abuses in the supply chain, violation of Indigenous land rights, and projects that harm local communities must be eradicated before any electric vehicle can be considered a ‘good’ climate solution.
Other technologies are being explored, including alternating current induction motors which don’t require magnets containing rare earth elements. Meanwhile, a number of elements used to scrub the emissions of traditional internal combustion engines, such as platinum, palladium, and rhodium, will likely see significant declines in demand.
Further in the future lithium-ion batteries can be enhanced by adding new combinations of materials such as nickel, iron, manganese, aluminium and silicon. Other battery alternatives include: solid state batteries, with cells up to 10 times more energy dense; and lithium-sulphur batteries, with sulphur replacing materials like cobalt, 100% recyclability and possibly 40-50% more range in EVs. Down the line, there is even potential for sustainable organic materials in batteries, such as cellulose and water-based electrolytes, which could provide fast charging, compostable and organic materials, and many more charge cycles than lithium.
Wider adoption of recycling and reuse could also be key in this area. Today, very few battery cells are recycled. This is likely to change, as materials for batteries are limited, making a circular approach necessary. Because EV batteries undergo a regular series of charges and discharges, batteries need to have at least 80% health. When health goes below 80%, however, these batteries are still perfectly fine for various ‘second life’ uses.
Energy grid storage will become an important part of the energy sector, allowing excess renewable energy to be stored for later use. With so many EVs being produced in the coming years, second hand batteries will be able to meet the demand for grid scale storage of over 200GWh a year by 2030 – equal to the energy demand of more than 50,000 UK homes.
Developments in battery component extraction also means processing centres can extract battery materials for recycling or reuse, while some companies can remove batteries from the vehicle to be used elsewhere. Many manufacturers are already working to ensure they have significant recycling capacity in place before EVs start reaching end of life over the next decade. This will also reduce emissions through the manufacturing process.
Reports suggest that material recovery can lead to a reduction in energy of 6-56% and a 23% reduction of greenhouse gases, compared with virgin material production.
Car manufacturers have started to act. Volkswagen introduced a scheme in 2019 which it believes will see 97% of all the raw materials used in new EV batteries reused by 2040.
Overall, while it’s clear that electric vehicles have distinct benefits in comparison to petrol and diesel cars, they also aren’t a perfect, silver bullet solution. More needs to be done to ensure supply chains are ethical and sustainable, and don’t cause major damage to communities in the Global South. Like other parts of a just transition, climate justice must be achieved through an intersectional, justice-based lens. In countries that are heavily car reliant, this also has to look like mass investment in widespread accessible public transport, urban planning that considers pedestrians and encourages cyclists, and new reciprocal models such as car sharing becoming normalised.
So yes, when vehicles are necessary, an electric future seems the best route to invest in, but this needs to be paired with structural changes that rapidly reshape the ways we live, improving quality of life and moving us towards justice for all.