Is Driving an Electric Vehicle Really Better for the Environment?

Are electric vehicles (EVs) better for the environment than traditional gas-powered cars? This article explores the environmental impact of both vehicles.

Can we argue that electric vehicles (EV)s are worse for the environment than internal combustion engines? Let’s look at the environmental impact of electric vehicles versus gas-powered ones. We’re going to open up some facts about both types of vehicles and try to draw a conclusion from that.

First, let's take a look at some ways electric cars are bad for the environment. One of the biggest arguments against electric vehicles is that battery production is far more detrimental to the environment than the production of internal combustion vehicles. This is true, due to the large batteries EVs use - being made with lithium, and like any raw material, that needs to be mined. The mining process produces lots of greenhouse gases and it's a problem that's only going to grow, unless the manufacturing process becomes more efficient.

More than half of the world’s lithium supply comes from the parched salt plains of the Atacama desert, in tippy tops of the Andes mountains. Workers drill through the crust of the salt to get to the mineral-rich brine below the surface. This process leeches massive amounts of groundwater from the surrounding area, resulting in a decreased water supply and less accessible water for local agriculture.

But, lithium is just one of the components of a battery. It’s actually a smaller percentage than you might think too, at around 6%. The sourcing of another element used in batteries: cobalt, poses a greater more ethically-driven concern: some cobalt mines use child labour, which is reprehensible. Thankfully, large electric vehicle manufacturers, such as, Tesla and BYD have begun to adjust their battery technology, to completely omit cobalt as a component in their batteries.

Then, there's the issue of recycling these lithium-ion batteries, The process is not at the point it needs to be to cope with the growing number of spent batteries from electric vehicles. Relatively plain things like storage, is a huge problem because of the volatility of the elements in a lithium battery. The number of potentially catastrophic fires and explosions has already been going up as more batteries are stockpiled. The solution? It all depends on how quickly the industry evolved to deal with these issues.

The fact of the matter is modern electric vehicle production is in its relative infancy compared to gas engines, so as time goes on and new processes come into play, the environmental impact will improve steadfastly.

The same can be said about where electric vehicles get their electricity. Right now, most of Singapore’s electric charging network is powered with energy generated from traditional power plants. So, the impact of driving a zero-emissions car is more detrimental to the environment than driving an EV in places with clean energy, such as wind, solar and hydroelectric power plants: Singapore being a well-managed and close-knit island, has already begun its conversion to solar energy as an alternative power source years earlier. Therefore, the efficiency at which an EV operates here will only get better.

So, now that we know the very real problems of electric vehicle production, how do they compare to the internal combustion engine?

Let's start where we did with electric vehicles: Production. Manufacturing the average internal combustion vehicle produces 7 metric tons of CO2. This number takes into account everything from the mining ore of steel to the moment the car rolls off the production line. That number is lower than EVs because of the absence of lithium-ion batteries. It also has to do with how efficient ICE manufacturing has become. We’re talking about the industry that is responsible for inventing the assembly line.

After the car rolls out of the factory, greenhouse gas emissions from gasoline-powered cars start over-taking the amount any electric vehicle could use in its entire lifespan. Gasoline, like the lithium in the batteries, has to be mined. There are a lot of steps between the extraction of crude oil to filling your car at the gas station, and each step has an environmental impact. Crude oil extraction starts with drilling into the earth, either on land or on the ocean floor. After the crude oil is mined, it needs to be refined into gasoline and other petroleum products such as jet fuel, petroleum jelly and plastic. This process releases tons of greenhouse gases, including: not only CO2 but methane and nitrous oxide as well.

Every day around the world, close to 95 million barrels of oil is produced and everyday oil refinement is responsible for emitting 767 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. Sure, the average car is responsible for a negligible fraction of CO2 every year, but oil refineries release a whopping 280 billion metric tons of CO2 in that same timeframe.

Overall, we know that over an average lifespan of a car with an internal combustion engine it emits roughly 57 metric tons of CO2. Over the same time period, the average EV is responsible for 28 metric tons of emissions, less than half of that of an ICE engine. Despite the fact that electric vehicles make more CO2 during their production, they more than make up for it by not having any emissions during use - Taking into account the emissions produced by electric-power plants that electric vehicles source their power.

So, that means the average EV will become more efficient than a gas-powered car between 6 months to 2 years of driving it. In fact, even the least efficient electric vehicle with the dirtiest power source, like a coal power plant, will be better for the environment than the most efficient gas engine after a certain period of time. Electric vehicles in countries with access to cleaner electricity like windmills, solar and hydroelectric power plants are significantly more efficient.

Let’s take a look at a few more myths:

Myth number one: electric vehicle production and charging from coal-powered plants produce more emissions than gas car production and operation - False. Compare the emissions of any gas car versus any electric car and in the lone run, any EV beats any gas car in efficiency.

Myth number two: our electric grid can't handle the onslaught of EVs. This one is also false. Even if a quarter of the cars on the road were electric tomorrow, the electric grids in Singapore could handle all of them without disruption.

But, we still have to acknowledge the truth, no matter how you spin it electric vehicles have less of an environmental impact than gas-powered cars.