What’s on the other side of the EV equation?

March 14, 2023

For years, the automotive industry has faced an environmental quandary. How do you make vehicles more environmentally friendly? In the face of federal and state regulations, automotive companies have sought new ways to reduce emissions, increase miles per gallon, and make vehicles more eco-friendly. The latest push is to go fully emission-free, with states such as California making the big push for emission-free by 2035. Following suit, Honda and LG Energy Solutions (LGES) committed to invest $4.4 billion in a new electric vehicle (EV) battery plant. With many other auto companies like Stellantis and General Motors also making deals and similar commitments with LGES, the question remains: are EVs more environmentally friendly than fossil fuels? And are they really carbon neutral?

Lithium and Energy

The most crucial element of the EV environmentally friendly discussion is knowing what the batteries are made of and how the components are mined. The main components in EV batteries are lithium, nickel, manganese, and cobalt. While lithium is not scarce, mining lithium takes a toll on the environment, with copious amounts of energy utilized for lithium extraction. Currently, most lithium is extracted from hard rock mines or brine reservoirs. The extraction and processing of lithium are now powered by fossil fuels, resulting in large quantities of CO2 emissions. For example, 15 tons of CO2 are emitted into the air for every ton of mined lithium in hard rock mining. However, while the emissions from lithium mining are an issue, the genuine concern with EV batteries is cobalt and nickel.

The Cobalt and Nickle Challenge

Cobalt is one of the most valuable and scarce elements in EV batteries. Cobalt mining consists of radioactive emissions and cobalt can be toxic, causing problems with the heart, lungs, liver, and thyroid if not appropriately handled. Runoff from mining can cause crop damage and kill wildlife. Some precautions can be taken to reduce the impact. However, environmentalists face an uphill battle in many areas where mining occurs, with the majority concentrated in remote areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo. There are also other concerns about the human impact of cobalt mining, with child labor, poor working conditions, and taking land without compensation. To combat these issues, scientists are working on better ways to recycle batteries and potentially reduce or eliminate the use of cobalt in EV batteries. Ultimately, these changes would lower costs, free supply chains, and reduce environmental impact.

The nickel used in EV batteries is also scarce and hard to mine. Like cobalt, the extraction of nickel takes a massive amount of energy. How nickel is mined is also changing to compensate for increased demand, going from extraction from sulfide ores to laterite ores. This change in process results in more greenhouse gas emissions. Nickel mining in Russia produces some of the worst air pollutions in the world. Scientists are also working on making this process more efficient, figuring out ways to extract more from what has already been mined. At the same time, regulators in countries like Canada (the world’s 6th largest nickel producer) look for better ways to regulate the mining process and reduce related emissions.

While mining elements essential to EV production is risky and can result in different types of pollution, advancements are and commitments to cleaner, more regulated production and trade of these elements. With improvements to recycling EV batteries, emission controls for mining and extracting companies, human rights initiatives, smaller, more efficient batteries, and world pacts (such as the Paris Climate Accord) to reduce overall emissions, EV batteries are on the road to being more environmentally friendly.

Ultimately, real oversight and innovation will make the process better. It may never be genuinely carbon natural or 100% environmentally safe. Also, while upfront manufacturing may create more carbon pollution currently, studies show that over the vehicle’s lifetime, they are less than that of internal combustion engines. As a result, overall, EVs are still better than standard combustion engines with their overall impact on the environment over time. We have to be cognizant of the effects, and we should continue to look for ways to improve the overall manufacturing process and seek an alternative to components like cobalt and nickel.

Source: Medium - ESGiQ