America’s transportation sector constitutes more than 30% of America’s greenhouse gas emissions. Using one gallon of gasoline emits a whopping 24 lbs of carbon dioxide. While the bulk of a car’s emissions come from the tailpipe, five pounds are from the extraction, production, and delivery of the car and its fuel. However, we seem to have found a promising solution to this problem: electric cars. These energy efficient vehicles have grown in popularity as climate change becomes an increasingly urgent issue, but how clean really are electric cars?
There is no question that cars relying on diesel or gasoline are terrible for the environment. They emit gasses like nitrous oxide that deplete our ozone layer. Other gasses such as nitrogen and sulfur dioxide can form acid rain when mixed with rainwater. Additionally, catastrophes such as oil or fuel spills greatly contaminate the soil and water in the environment. Not only do these cars harm the environment, but they are also directly detrimental to people. Particulate matter can cause skin and eye irritations, similar to the symptoms of allergies. Tiny particles enter our bodies and lungs, causing respiratory problems. When combined, hydrocarbons, nitrogen dioxide, and sunlight form ozone, which is good for our atmosphere but terrible for humans as it can inflame our lungs, inciting chest pains, coughing, and breathing difficulties. Additionally, carbon monoxide interferes with the blood’s ability to transport oxygen, making even minute quantities extremely dangerous, especially to infants and people with heart problems. Finally, although we do not realize it, the noise these vehicles emit pollutes the world, causing damage to hearing and psychological health.
Cars create two types of emissions: direct emissions and life cycle emissions. Direct emissions from regular cars include tailpipe emissions and smog forming pollutants like carbon dioxide. Life cycle emissions are pollutants released during the production, processing, distribution, and disposal of the car. For example, petroleum must be extracted and refined to form gasoline, and other polluting vehicles distribute the fuel.
Unlike standard cars, electric vehicles use batteries instead of gasoline and contain an electric motor instead of an internal combustion engine. Similarly, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV) can use either gas or electricity and contain a combination of gas and electrical parts. They have a battery, electric motor, gasoline tank, and internal combustion engine. Both fully electric and hybrid vehicles produce fewer emissions than conventional vehicles. PHEVs still release evaporative emissions and tailpipe emissions when operating on gasoline; however, they are more gas efficient than conventional vehicles. These electric vehicles produce around 3,774 lb carbon dioxide per vehicle, while gasoline vehicles produce approximately 11,435 lb carbon dioxide per vehicle.
Although electric vehicles are definitely beneficial for the environment, they may not be as green as we think. While fully electric vehicles produce no direct emissions, the source of the electricity that is used for these vehicles increases their life cycle emissions, and, according to a study done by Ford, only emit 64% less than regular gas vehicles. For example, only a third of California’s electricity mix comes from renewable resources such as solar or wind power, but these mixes vary by state. By cleaning up America’s electric grids, the net life cycle emission of these vehicles would be closer to 0 lbs of carbon dioxide. However, the production and recycling processes of these cars still need to be refined. For example, the lithium from batteries used in electric vehicles is not recyclable. Tesla batteries weigh half a ton, and we have yet to find a way to properly recycle them. Other light metals necessary for production are extracted from environmentally destructive mines. David Abraham’s The Elements of Power talks about the Jiangxi rare earth mine in China. In a process similar to oil drilling, workers dig eight foot holes and pour in ammonium sulfate to dissolve the sand and clay. They extract rare earth metals for use in phones and Teslas. However, these metals are less than 0.2% of what gets pulled out. The rest is irresponsibly dumped, contaminating our environment with various chemicals. The careless disposal of cobalt and other chemicals results in hazardous tailings, ponds used to store waste, and slags, compressed trash, that greatly damage our environment. Studies have shown that high exposure to these contaminated areas harms the eyes, skin, heart, and arms. Furthermore, 70% of the mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo are unregulated artisanal mines with terrible working conditions where workers, many of whom are children, use hand-held tools that further expose them to these toxic chemicals. The assembly machines aren’t much better, with massive stone crushing machines relying heavily on fossil fuels. The amount of water required for producing these batteries makes the manufacturing of electrical vehicles around 50% more water intensive than that of internal combustion engines.
Many companies are researching the possibility of using car batteries for energy storage. Car companies such as General Motors and Volvo plan on selling solely electric cars by the 2030s. A Tesla spokesperson stated that the company recycles all battery packs returned to it, and promised that as Tesla grows, recycling efficiency will as well. Other automakers and manufacturers have committed to eliminating “artisanal” cobalt by developing batteries that do not need or heavily rely on the metal. Additionally, they plan to work with mines to lessen their environmental footprint. Companies are still experimenting with various methods of recycling, but if done properly, car batteries could be used for a decade or more. While electric vehicles may not be completely clean, we must remember that they produce much less pollution than standard gas-powered cars, thereby decreasing the overall carbon footprint of ground transportation.
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“Explaining Electric & Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles.” EPA, United States Environmental Protection Agency, 15 Sept. 2021, https://www.epa.gov/greenvehicles
Hineman, Brinley. “Fact Check: Electric Vehicles Emit Fewer Emissions and Are Better for the Environment.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 17 Oct. 2020, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/factcheck/2020/10/17/fact-check-electric-cars-emit-less-better-environment/3671468001/
Wade, Lizzie. “Tesla's Electric Cars Aren't as Green as You Might Think.” Wired, Conde Nast, 31 Mar. 2016, https://www.wired.com/2016/03/teslas-electric-cars-might-not-green-think/
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