What will EVs cost us and the planet?

27 Juli 2023

Photo: Pexels/Eric Mclean

Transitioning to a green economy is vital for reducing the effects of climate change. Electric vehicles (EVs) emit no greenhouse gases and can run on clean electricity, and many people tout them as a better alternative to gas-powered cars.

However, they have hidden costs of their own. How do EVs affect people and the environment?

1. Mining

One of the biggest problems associated with EV manufacturing is mining. Except for hydrogen hybrids and plug-in hybrid vehicles, all EVs contain a battery — usually a lithium-ion battery — instead of an internal combustion engine (ICE). These batteries typically contain manganese, lithium, nickel, cobalt and trace amounts of other minerals.

Obtaining these metals requires either traditional mining or brine processing, a type of saltwater-based extraction. But mining is hard on people and the environment alike.

For example, many of the world’s cobalt reserves are in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where children and slaves often work under grueling conditions in the mines. On the briny salt flats of Bolivia and Chile, lithium extraction jeopardizes surrounding communities’ access to water by contaminating or consuming it. Mining can cause devastating environmental effects ranging from water pollution to species extinction.

2. Production and Use

To build EVs, automakers rely on machinery, lighting, air conditioning and other factory processes that use fossil fuels — battery aside, it’s no different than assembling any other type of car.

EVs run on electricity rather than gasoline or diesel. However, energy producers use coal, oil and natural gas to produce most of their electricity, so EVs still indirectly use fossil fuels. They’re only truly environmentally friendly if they use electricity sourced from green energy.

3. Disposal

Frustratingly, current technology makes it hard to recycle lithium batteries. The cost of disassembling them is higher than the cost of disposal. Consequently, most EV batteries eventually end up in landfills. The precious metals inside them — which people worked so hard to extract — lie in darkness at the bottom of vast troves of garbage, never to be seen again.

Despite their flaws, EVs are still better than traditional vehicles.

Diesel- and gas-powered cars emit toxic fumes that cause a range of adverse health effects. In the European Union, an estimated 3.41% of workers could develop lung cancer due to job-related diesel exhaust exposure. Breathing in vehicle emissions — such as when driving or living near a highway — can also lead to asthma, pulmonary edema and heart disease. EVs do not emit anything at all.

Another issue is that oil prices fluctuate unpredictably, and many countries rely on foreign nations for oil imports. Switching to EVs fosters energy independence. It also gives governments more control over the cost of refueling vehicles rather than hoping oil prices stay low.

The U.S. transportation sector is responsible for around 29% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. Extracting the oil and gas that powers ICE cars requires even more fossil-fuel-based machinery, and it damages ecosystems in the process. Switching to electric cars that run on solar- or wind-produced electricity would strongly benefit the environment.

Making EVs more sustainable

Electric vehicles are currently the best transportation solution to improve climate change and human health — it’s only a matter of building them more sustainably. How can we improve the process?

Battery recycling technology continues to advance. If recycling plants could recover 100% of the precious metals and minerals in an EV battery for reuse, we could reduce the need for mining and refining operations. Doing so would significantly cut down on fossil fuel use, human rights abuses and land destruction.

Finding new ways to obtain minerals could also be a solution. The oceans hold vast stores of precious metals, including lithium, and scientists are working hard to develop new techniques for sea-based extraction. By utilizing ocean reserves, miners could avoid damaging human settlements and using fresh water for extraction.

Countries that rely heavily on foreign mining should consider increasing domestic production. Instead of outsourcing cobalt from the DRC, for example, the U.S. can open more mines stateside. Government regulations can protect miners and ensure no one is forced to work.

EV manufacturing plants must switch to green energy to power their operations. Wind, solar, geothermal and hydroelectric power are mature technologies that can replace coal and oil. Governments should invest in renewable infrastructure so automakers can make the switch.

Electric vehicles are not perfect. Mining and extracting the materials for an EV battery can have social, environmental and economic costs, and it is possible to power EVs with fossil-fuel-based electricity. However, phasing out diesel- and gas-powered cars will profoundly benefit human health and the planet. We may have a long road ahead, but EVs will help get us where we need to go.

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