Electric vehicles as a solution in reducing emissions is something that's been widely discussed in recent times. Is it really worth it?
I have always mentioned how changing our transportation method is a major contribution society can make to reach a more sustainable lifestyle, as the transportation sector alone is responsible for 25% of global emissions.
Emissions created from this industry start from the manufacturing process, for example, the production of cars taking a large number of resources such as energy, water, and industrial processes creating gas emissions. Then there are road transportation emissions and fuel burning.
Finally, their end-of-life waste especially wastes from manufacturing processes that are non-biodegradable and contaminates the air, water, and land.
These life cycles of a vehicle leave a large carbon footprint, however, transportation is one of the essential sectors in assisting human activities, thus a step must be taken to ensure activities can still run efficiently while reducing the number of emissions to be produced.
The car sector alone contributes around 70% to the total emissions of transportation. Nonetheless, this problem has become apparent to several major companies, leading to the creation of electric vehicles (EV).
The idea behind EVs is to provide environmental benefits, while also being economically affordable compared to conventional cars in terms of fuel and maintenance.
The growth of EVs can be significantly seen on the road. There are electric cars, bikes, even electric trains. Additionally, more companies and start-ups are starting to develop their own EV technology, thus, we can expect electric cars to be dominating in the near future.
Electric cars are built with the idea of little to no road transportation emission, as they do not require any gasoline or fuel to be emitted from the combustion tailpipe, but instead use electricity, so theoretically, there is no air pollution being produced while driving.
However, some people are charging these electric vehicles with electricity from power sources generated by non-renewable energy such as coal and fossil fuel, which produces even more harmful gas emissions than engine combustion from conventional cars.
This action completely contradicts its purpose of specifically reducing emissions from fossil fuel burning.
Furthermore, due to charging stations that are much less frequent than gas stations, electric cars require large batteries with significant environmental costs.
In fact, these batteries make the total gas emission generated for the production of electric vehicles higher than the production of conventional cars.
This happens as batteries are made of rare earth elements such as lithium, cobalt, and nickel, which requires heavy mining activities which in turn is a highly polluting process.
Hence, the production of electric vehicles demands an expensive manufacturing process, also resulting in a high environmental cost.
Advantages of EVs compared to Conventional Cars
Electric cars are generally cheaper than combustion engines or conventional cars. This applies to the fuel and maintenance costs. Thus, if implemented properly, electric cars provide a vision of a low carbon economy.
As mentioned previously, the large emissions of EVs come from the manufacturing process of batteries which also includes heavy mining activities and the electricity for charging EVs that use non-renewable energy.
Thus, EVs are not the efficient option when it comes to short-term sustainability, taking into account the expensive manufacturing process which can produce almost double the emissions than the production of conventional cars. However, EVs provide greater benefits for long-term sustainability (see Figure below).
A combustion engine vehicle emits approximately 252.5 grams of CO2 per kilometer, whereas a typical battery pack of EV releases 73-98 grams of CO2 per kilometer.
Thus, EVs emit significantly less in their ‘on the road’ emissions. Managing renewable energy sources is easier than trying to reduce the number of emissions produced from combustion engines/fuel burning, as traffic is still a large issue on the road.
Furthermore, EVs have the advantage of reducing the noise pollution on the road also caused by traffic, since EV engines are significantly quieter from having no exhaust.
Conclusion and Recommendations
When considering all of the obstacles above, are electric cars the more sustainable transportation approach?
Well, the answer is maybe. It definitely has the potential to be sustainable, however, the lack of awareness from people in maximizing its sustainable capacities, contradicts the initial idea.
Therefore, the spreading of education and awareness on this topic, especially to EV users should be increased to reach the goal of reducing emissions produced.
A solution is to ensure that the electricity used is produced from renewable energy, such as solar, wind, etc. This way, the idea of reducing ‘on the road’ emissions can be implemented properly, without any additional energy consumed from non-renewable energy sources.
The role of government and authorities in spreading awareness and building infrastructure is also vital in this case, and further research on sustainability in the manufacturing and waste management process of the EV industry is also needed.
Moreover, as mentioned in the intro, using public transportation and carpooling, while anticipating the development of a more sustainable transportation approach will still be the most preferred solution to reduce emissions at a larger scale.
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Olivia Eugenia is an Environmental Science student at the University of Western Australia. She is also an activist and a content writer at the International Youth Organization for Peace and Sustainability.
Inputs and Edits by Aswin Raghav R.