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How Green Are Electric Vehicles (EVs)?

While EVs may seem like a fad to climate-change naysayers, environmentalists and those in the automotive industry are taking them very seriously.

In fact, General Motors has said they will stop selling gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035, and Volvo claims they’ll do the same by 2030, and that’s only 8 years away. And they’re not alone. Mercedez-Benz, Toyota, Volkswagen and Nissan say they’ll follow suit by 2035. Plus, 30 national governments have pledge to phase out gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles by 2040.

With the whole world seems to be jumping on the climate-friendly electric vehicle bandwagon, EVs still have their own environmental impact depending on the way they’re manufactured and powered.

Electricity — electric produce fewer emissions, but an EV’s overall environmental footprint depends on how the electricity is produced to charge the vehicles, especially if the electrical plant is coal-powered (most power grids draw their energy from a combination of fossil fuel and renewable power). Electric motors are more efficient than internal combustion engines. For example, an all-electric Chevrolet Bolt produces about 189 grams of carbon dioxide for every mile driven, while a gasoline-powered Toyota Camry produces about 385 grams per mile — basically double. A new Ford F-150 pickup produces 636 grams of carbon dioxide per mile — nearly three and a half times that of the electric Chevrolet Bolt. Of course, each vehicle’s size and weight factors in, but you get the idea. 

Raw Materials — while EVs and gas vehicles are comprised of the same basic materials and safety features, it’s the batteries in the electric vehicles that are the greatest concern. Lithium-ion cells are created with cobalt, lithium and other rare elements, with cobalt being the most problematic. Mining cobalt produces hazardous byproducts that can leach into the environment, while extracting the ore emits sulfur oxide and other harmful chemicals. Cobalt is generally mined with hand tools (often by children) in the Democratic Republic of Congo, while lithium is mined in Australia or South America, diverting vast amounts pf valuable water resources from agriculture to pump it out.  

Recycling — As batteries reach the end of their lives, the problem is extracting the valuable metals, which uses large amounts of water and emits air pollutants. While about 99%of all lead-acid batteries are recycled in the U.S., only about 5% of lithium-ion batteries are. As they become more commonplace, researchers seek to discover ways to recycle or even reuse these lithium-ion batteries.  

Emissions to produce an electric car may be higher due to the batteries, with more than a third of the CO2 emissions coming from vehicle production. But electric cars are still better for the environment than gasoline-powered ones — based on the emissions created over a car’s lifetime — which can be up to 30% lower than a gasoline-powered car. 

With 29% of the greenhouse emissions in 2019 coming from cars, trucks, ships, and planes—and 90% of that total coming from gasoline and diesel--EVs already are having a major impact on reducing CO2 emissions and will continue to improve with new technological developments.  

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