Battery Pollution From EV Production Worse Than ICEs - True, but Wait a Second

Pollution EV Battery vs Gas Cars 6 photos
Photo: Pixabay, Tesla
Combustion Cars GHG EmissionsLifecycle GHG EmissionsFake news memeMining siteElectric Vehicles Only Charging Point
Let’s face it: you probably didn’t give a damn about the environmental impact of cars until some know-it-all social media apostle pointed out that Electric cars are not that green or Batteries are worse for the environment. Shockingly, these are not fake allegations. But not putting things into context results in false conclusions. So, what’s this battery pollution conundrum all about?
In the 2010s some car makers started to lure eco-conscious people into buying high-priced, low-range electric cars using the zero emissions propaganda label.

When you drive around your fancy EV, you don’t spew pollutants in the air people breathe in cities, while your ignorant petrolhead neighbor’s evil gasoline car will surely cause you lung cancer because of its pipeline fumes.

The sarcasm I used is hardly a politically correct way to emphasize strong arguments in favor of EVs. Unfortunately, zero emissions is not true at all when considering the other issues in a car’s life cycle.

This zero emissions bubble sparked many debates out there about the accuracy of those statistics about pollution harming our health, or if the transport sector really is the main responsible for emissions in our cities, or "is this climate change thing even real?!". You know, the good old way of seeding doubt.

Combustion Cars GHG Emissions
Photo: Pixabay
All those impossible-to-read scientific reports are countered by people who usually rely on short and loud arguments, which become viral as they are way easier to understand than scientific babble.

That’s how the related pollution stringent issue came to light and suddenly plagued the zero emissions benefits of EVs. Of course, EVs' prosecutors don't bring into discussion the related pollution of gasoline cars...

Can we measure manufacturing emissions?

The short answer is YES. But it’s not at all a simple task, because of lack of the relevant data and even no data at all.

The energy sector is a matter of national security, and some information is classified. Especially in those developed countries responsible for high levels of emissions.

Still, in recent years the U.S. Argonne National Laboratory developed the GREET model. This tool simulates the energy use and emissions output of various vehicle and fuel combinations, considering the full life-cycle from well to wheels for fuels and from raw material mining to cars and batteries disposal.

It’s nothing like your usual desktop calculator. But it’s accurate enough for EPA to estimate the lifecycle of greenhouse gasses emissions (GHGs) for an EV and a comparable gasoline car (based on extrapolation from car models on sale in 2020).

Achilles' heel: batteries' environmental impact

The graph is showing that the EV's full life-cycle emissions are roughly half compared to those of the gasoline car. But we cannot ignore an inconvenient truth: battery manufacturing is doubling the emissions when you build the electric car compared to the gasoline car.

The colors in the graph are self-explanatory. The blue bar (emissions associated with the battery) is the same as the orange bar (which encompasses the rest of the vehicle manufacturing along with recycling or disposal).

Lifecycle GHG Emissions
Photo: EPA
So we can all agree now that, when it reaches the showroom floor, the electric car has already polluted at least twice as much as a comparable gasoline car. You can hear the prosecutors' cheers in the back: "Zero emissions my a**!".

NMC (nickel-manganese-cobalt) batteries are the most common form found in today’s electric vehicles. According to Argonne National Laboratory, such a battery pack requires tens of pounds of these heavy metals.

Cobalt, still the most valuable part in the battery, is sourced mainly from Congo in Africa, where heavy Chinese investments in mining operations are lacking strict regulation.

There is a real problem with toxicity and even with child labor. Graphite and nickel are also important ingredients in current battery recipes and mining techniques harm the environment to various degrees.

Data acquired in the 2010s from the Chinese mining industry revealed that, for one ton of rare earth elements, 75 tons of acid waste and one ton of radioactive residues are also made.

Lithium is sourced mainly by hard-rock mining, with heavy energy consumption techniques - for every ton of mined lithium, 15 tons of CO2 are emitted into the air.

Lithium is also sourced from brines, a method which puts strain on water reserves in Australia, Chile, and China, where almost all lithium reserves are located.

Fake news meme
Photo: Facebook
* Remember this Facebook meme? It's fake. The image shows one of the largest copper mines in the world, located in Chile *

There are other metals and plastics in the structure of a battery, which all add to the high carbon footprint of manufacturing. It does look bad, there's no deny. And many fear it will escalate.

IEA predicts that in 2030 there will be at least 150 million EVs in the world. It means the demand for these raw materials is also expected to skyrocket. So are the related issues and their environmental impact.

The devil is in the details

The grim picture you now see in your head suits the claims of those who point out the negative impact of batteries on the environment. But there is a catch.

They base their assumptions on the false premise that 2030 will be the same as 2020. No novelties in batteries research and innovations. The governments’ frameworks will still be missing. The same scarce charging infrastructure.

Such a theory is misleading or even ill-intended. Moreover, much of the related pollution data are coming from older and scarce reports (usually before 2015), when environmental regulations weren't as stringent as today. Or simply there was no regulation.

This half-of-truth approach is more like lying by omission. Right, you got me, it’s the same way those who are trying to sell you an electric car focus on zero emissions and tell you nothing about related pollution. Because you never asked about it.

Solutions are also hiding in the details

The industry is already taking measures to counter cobalt mining bad practice, from monitoring sustainable sourcing (for instance, Global Battery Alliance focuses on Cobalt Action Partnership) to cobalt-free batteries (like Tesla’s LFP).

Recycling is already on the verge of recovering up to 95% of batteries materials, as Redwood Materials claims. More recycling requires less mining, so less carbon footprint for batteries.

But let me ask you this: what is the main cause of energy consumption and emissions in mining operations?

All the machinery, ranging from monstrous excavators to behemoth trucks, use internal combustion engines, usually fueled by low-grade diesel and oils. Don’t forget the electricity generators than run on diesel.

New data suggests that fossil fuels account for more than half of a mining site's operations. It means half of the batteries’ carbon footprint is due to mining processes.

Mining site
Photo: Pixabay
But wait, are EV batteries the only ones to blame for mining pollution? Isn’t almost all the stuff our consumerist society needs based on mining raw materials?

Keep in mind that the mining industry accounts for at least 10% of world energy consumption. Less mining pollution means a smaller carbon footprint. For everything we use, including EV batteries.

The absurdity of “gas better than electric

In the manufacturing phase, an electric car DOES pollute more than an internal combustion car. But if you forget the manufacturing part, then the statement is simply fake news.

It’s also an allegation of no use. Cars are bought to be driven, for hundreds of thousands of miles and for many years. And all the emissions blamed on the battery manufacturing are quickly paid off using the car.

Recent studies revealed that initial footprint of battery is offset in US within six to 16 months of regular driving. In the worst case scenario, dirtiest EV fares the same as the best gasoline vehicle on the market. For the whole life cycle, that is.

Funny thing, by pointing out this battery-environment dilemma, the prosecutors of EVs actually help the industry to more quickly identify and efficiently address these issues.

Of course, the environmental impact of manufacturing batteries is by no means trivial. But I hope by now you understand that, in a car life cycle, the EVs' bad effects are exaggerated compared to the downsides of fossil fuels-propelled cars.

I mean batteries are becoming more and more sustainable, while burning oil fuels is simply in no way sustainable, ever. It may sound cynical, but we're now at the point where, unfortunately, it's worth destroying a little part of the environment in order to save all the environment.

Electric Vehicles Only Charging Point
Photo: Pixabay
The EPA’s graph is self-explanatory: it would be stupid to discard a good solution by insisting on a perfect solution, while continuing to rely on the least helpful solution.
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About the author: Oraan Marc
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After graduating college with an automotive degree, Oraan went for a journalism career. 15 years went by and another switch turned him from a petrolhead into an electrohead, so watch his profile for insight into green tech, EVs of all kinds and alternative propulsion systems.
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