How Clean Are EVs Exactly?
One of the biggest selling points of EVs—if not the biggest selling point—is the fact that they're "cleaner" than internal combustion vehicles.
A study from the International Energy Agency has found that global demand for passenger EVs has grown exponentially over the last decade, with more than 10 million EVs on the road as of 2020. The U.S. accounted for nearly 20 percent of that demand, registering around 1.7 million battery electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles registered two years ago.
More recently, President Joe Biden and American automakers have pledged significant funds and resources to making upward of half of all new vehicle sales electric within the next decade. Biden has touted the move as "a robust schedule for development of fuel efficiency and multi-pollutant emissions standards," leading the way for a cleaner world.
The claim that electric vehicles are by far a cleaner choice than ICE-powered vehicles has been peddled for quite some time and has become a key argument for widespread EV adoption. A commodities study from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development shows that a massive increase in demand for cobalt, lithium manganese and cobalt, key ingredients for EV batteries, is directly connected to the EV surge.
"[The demand] is largely driven by policies that encourage the mitigation of greenhouse gases coupled with incentives for zero-and low-emissions vehicles, economic instruments that help bridge the cost gap between electric and conventional vehicles and support for the deployment of charging infrastructure," the report said. "It is also being driven by policies that target banning future sales of internal combustion engines (e.g. in Norway and France) which are influencing the expansion of the EV market."
There is significant evidence to suggest that EVs, once on the road, are a cleaner option. The Union of Concerned Scientists in May 2020 filed a report calculating the total emissions from EVs compared against ICE-powered vehicles.
The report measured ICEs based on the average amount of emissions produced by "by extracting crude oil from the ground, moving the oil to a refinery, making gasoline and transporting it to filling stations, along with combustion exhaust from the tailpipe." For EVs, the report measured both power plant emissions and emissions from coal, natural gas and other fuel sources used by power plants.
Average emissions in power plants across the U.S. fell around 5 percent from 2016 through 2018 due to increases in wind, solar and natural gas being used, while the average efficiency of EVs increased by around 6 percent over the same time period. At the time of the study, the average electric vehicle produced the same amount of pollution as an ICE vehicle that gets around 88 miles per gallon, which is far higher than the average fuel efficiency for new cars and trucks.
Electric vehicles are only going to get more efficient, too, meaning that once they're on the road, ICE vehicles really don't even come close to matching the low level of emissions EVs produce. However, there are still several major hurdles EVs face while in production that prevent them from being the end-all solution that many people claim them to be.
Extensive mining is required in order to produce the materials needed for EV batteries. According to that same commodities study from the UNCTD, once a mine has been drained of its valuable minerals and is abandoned, it can undergo several reactions with sulfur materials left over and produce sulfuric acid. That acid can pollute surface water and, more importantly, drinking water in the countries where that mining happens. Moreover, dust from cobalt mines can contain toxic metals, including uranium, that is linked to respiratory diseases and birth defects.
Aside from health affects, many of the mines used to produce EV materials rely heavily on child labor—the UNCTD report suggests upward of 40,000 children in the Democratic Republic of Congo are working in life-threatening conditions for very little money to harvest cobalt and other resources.
These materials can produced elsewhere—a report from NPR shows that on the Pacific Ocean floor, "sprawling fields" of mineral-rich rocks contain most every resource necessary for EV production. Advocates for this plan say "deep sea mining is more environmentally friendly than land-based mining," which in turn makes it by far the best solution for producing these materials. However, climate scientists say there's very little data to measure how big of an impact this deep sea operation would have, and getting to that point would take decades of research.
It's clear that EVs are cleaner than ICE vehicles once they're on the road by a significant margin. However, in order for electric vehicles to be the large-scale solution to vehicle emissions problems that people such as the Biden administration tout them to be, an extensive amount of work is going to need to be done to clean up the supply chain of how EVs are produced.