Electric vehicles are the greenest cars, but their supply chains are damn dirty


This week, a new report prepared for the UK Department for Transport found that electric vehicles are greener throughout their life cycle than their internal combustion engine (ICE) counterparts.

Specifically, life cycle modeling analysis revealed that a typical battery electric car saves up to 65% more greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than a car. conventional gasoline.

But is the research a win for electric vehicle manufacturing or a starting point to really get things done?

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Let’s find out.

Most EV emissions occur during production

The manufacture of electric vehicles, in particular the development of batteries, currently results in high levels of greenhouse gas emissions

Production emissions from electric vehicles were about 50% higher than gasoline cars in 2020. This is mainly due to batteries which accounted for 67% of total estimated life cycle GHG emissions.

However, vehicle and battery recycling and potential second-life applications could offset these emissions.

Examples include the use of stacks in second life industrial applications such as energy storage and the replacement of emergency power supplies at level crossings with used equipment.

The research claims that, by 2050, BEV production emissions could reach near parity with conventional vehicles.

Greenhouse Gas Life Cycle Impacts

Reduction of emissions throughout the life cycle of the EV

Research predicts that improvements in battery technology, manufacturing and end-of-life processing will result in a 76% reduction in GHGs compared to an ICE. This is facilitated by the decarbonisation of the UK electricity grid.

By 2050, these savings could reach 81%. Pretty convincing.

A deaf hydrogen cry

Hydrogen Fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) offer some benefits, but far fewer than electric vehicles.

Specifically, the lifecycle GHG reductions of FCEVs are approximately 60-70% higher than for an equivalent EV. This is due to the lower overall efficiency of the complete energy chain for hydrogen produced from electricity.

However, the modeling lacked an in-depth analysis of any growth in progress in the green hydrogen sector and how they could improve the efficiency of hydrogen development.

Credit: Hyundai Motor Group
Green hydrogen trucks offer significant gains for transporting heavy vehicles

But analysts still found that FCEVs shine in the heavy-duty category. For example, by 2050, an FCEV articulated truck could save 73% of GHG emissions compared to a conventional diesel version.

Overall, we are far from the promises of those who bet on hydrogen.

It’s not entirely a win but a place to dig deep

The forecast places a lot of hope in the plans of automakers and legislators in their timelines to phase out ICE vehicles.

Countries like the UK (2030) and Canada (2035), as well as the EU (2035) pledged to ban the sale of ICEs.

the end of ECIs contributes to greenhouse gas emissions
Like many automakers, Volvo will stop making ICEs by 2030.

And automakers have their own goals. For instance, VOLVO plans to completely stop manufacturing ICE by 2030.

But it will take some time to remove those still on the road – potentially decades in the UK, and well beyond the 2050 timeline.

Additionally, even if 100% of vehicle fleets sold today were electric, most cities, especially in rural areas, would struggle to meet the need for electric vehicle charging stations.

Then there is the health of the UK energy network to handle all EV charging needs. The success of an EV deployment relies on robust R&D – including wind and solar power – and future government investments in grid infrastructure to meet the demands of the future onslaught of charging.

Let’s not forget that the post-Brexit UK is no longer under EU control, and encompasses R&D and investment in this space, which may leave it financially struggling to meet these requests.

In addition to this, we need to discuss the materials used in electric vehicle batteries.

We are far from fully industry compliant

Currently, there is a lot of battery research developing batteries with longer life and improved recycling and reuse capabilities.

Many efforts are also being made to reduce the use of ethical and environmental issues materials like lithium and cobalt.

But good intentions don’t necessarily lead to commercially viable products, especially when it comes to the potentially higher costs of ethical mining. Therefore, any commitment in the automotive industry must be backed up with timelines and consequences for non-compliance.

Tire emissions much higher than tailpipe emissions: credit: Emissions Analytics

The research also did not take into account the impact of polluters such as tire emissionswhich produce worse pollution than exhaust pipes.

Fortunately, there is considerable R&D to make tires from renewable, recycled and traceable materials, but until they become universal their carbon emissions remain problematic.

It is therefore likely that cars on the roads will look very different by 2030 and even 2050. The vast majority will, of course, be electric vehicles.

But the biggest win would be lower car manufacturing rates and heavy investment in more sustainable people transportation. For example, micromobility and public transport. Then we will really have something to write.

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