Electric vehicles (EVs) appear to have many environmental and societal benefits compared to internal combustion engine (ICE) cars. These advantages include slowing climate change, less air pollution, fewer ecological risks, safer manufacturing processes, and reduced waste through recycling and repurposing materials. But fully realizing the advantages of electrification will take time and human investment. As the market shifts toward EVs, here are five ways electric cars are better for the environment.
Slowing Climate Change
Since the beginning of the industrial revolution nearly 150 years ago, greenhouse gas emissions have increased the amount of carbon in the earth’s atmosphere. In the last few decades, scientists have acknowledged that reducing these emissions may slow or even halt climate change. Despite the immediate benefits of reducing carbon emissions, it’s not an overnight fix.
One central area of focus in the United States and the world is the transportation sector. In America, motorized vehicles are the largest producer of greenhouse gases, both from a manufacturing standpoint and from an operational one. The emergence of EVs has offered a promising step toward sustainable mobility by lowering harmful tailpipe emissions. But up until now, the impact of EVs has been very modest, as these vehicles comprise only about one percent of all passenger vehicles on the road today.
However, electrified vehicles are gaining popularity. Indeed, many car manufacturers have announced a commitment to transition their entire model lineups from gas-powered to all-electric in the years ahead. And by 2035, most of the world’s major automakers will offer nothing but EVs. But that’s still 13 long years away.
In addition, the production of EV batteries is far less environmentally friendly than building a vehicle with an internal combustion engine. Experts claim it takes more than 18 months of EV ownership before an electric car is “cleaner” than a comparable ICE car from a production and use standpoint. In other words, widespread EV adoption alone is not enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly. It will also take a more sustainable approach to developing and manufacturing EV batteries.
Reducing Local Air Pollution
Manufacturing processes aside, EVs reduce air pollution. While they may not yet have had a significant effect in this regard because their numbers are still low, no doubt driving a vehicle with zero tailpipe emissions helps improve local air quality.
Aside from eliminating tailpipe particulates, EVs offer another advantage over traditional vehicles: reduced brake dust. This assertion may seem counterintuitive since electric cars are generally heavier than ICE vehicles and create extra friction with the road. However, the regenerative braking systems of EVs negate the need for standard braking to be applied as often. The result is a reduction of particulate matter from the brakes.
Taking things even further, many EVs now offer “one-pedal driving,” which brings the car to a complete stop using nothing but the regenerative braking system. One-pedal driving allows a driver to bring a vehicle to a complete stop without using the brake pedal. As the driver anticipates a stop ahead, they can ease their foot off the accelerator pedal. The vehicle will begin to decelerate at a force of approximately 20 percent of the total braking force, gradually slowing the car compared to the typical application of the hydraulic brakes. Once the vehicle stops entirely, the hydraulic brakes keep the car at a complete stop until the driver presses the accelerator pedal to move forward again.
Together, regenerative braking and one-pedal operation minimize and even eliminate brake dust. Combined with zero tailpipe emissions, EV driving is cleaner for the local environment than ICE vehicles.
Less Harmful Fluids
The use of and disposal requirements for fossil-based products like motor oil simply do not exist for EVs. Therefore, many vehicle lubricants and fluids that may be of environmental concern in an ICE vehicle are not an issue for EVs.
Internal combustion engine-based auto fluids like oil do not dissolve in water. As a result, motor oil, which contains toxic chemicals, can harm people and wildlife if improperly disposed of. Motor oil can foul wastewater treatment plants and septic systems if poured down a drain. As little as one part per million of oil can make water unsafe to drink.
Furthermore, oil spilled on land gets washed from the street into storm drains, leading to lakes, rivers, and streams. Because motor oil is heavy and sticky and contains an extensive concentration of toxic compounds, it can build up and persist in the environment for years.
Aside from eliminating the need for motor oil, EVs typically don’t use antifreeze and brake fluids containing heavy metals that can cause harm to aquatic wildlife. With ICE vehicles, these contaminants eventually make their way into waterways in the form of runoff and have a lasting negative impact on the environment. EVs may use battery coolant, but this fluid exists in a sealed system and rarely, if ever, needs to be changed.
In addition, ICE vehicles use radiator coolant, which contains ethylene glycol. This chemical can cause damage to the nervous system of humans and animals with moderate to high exposures. And transmission fluid is another agent that is difficult to clean up and often stays on the ground for a long time. As the fluid breaks down in the sun, it releases hydrocarbons into the air. These chemical compounds can affect breathing in humans and contribute to air pollution that affects everyone.
Fewer Environmental Risks
Our dependence on fossil fuels exacts a very high price in terms of safety and health. The toll of fossil fuels on human health and the environment is well-documented. Each year, workers on oil rigs and in refineries and natural gas fields are hurt or killed. There have been scores of fatalities and thousands of injuries at onshore and offshore oil production facilities in the past 50 years. With EVs, the need for fossil fuels is eliminated, significantly reducing the associated risks and potential for injury.
Aside from the human price of oil-related accidents, there has also been an enormous environmental cost, whether it be a broken pipeline on the seafloor or a refinery fire. Oil spills in the modern era have released millions of barrels of oil into our oceans and caused billions of dollars of economic and environmental damage. This includes the BP disaster, which spewed 4.2 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and had an estimated cost of 8-10 billion dollars in damages.
Natural gas—touted as a cleaner and safer alternative to coal and oil—has its perils, too. Natural gas pipeline accidents have resulted in hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries over the past several decades.
The auto industry can avert many of these dangers and disasters by ramping down fossil-fuel production. As a result, the proliferation of EVs could significantly impact this area in the years to come.
Less Waste Through Recycling
Electric-vehicle production is not the cleanest it can be for the environment, primarily due to the materials sourcing and manufacturing of batteries. However, in the future, EV battery repurposing and recycling will reduce the current environmental factors that contribute to “dirty” EV production.
As major carmakers look to expand the production and sales of EVs in the coming years, they will continue to seek new ways to reuse batteries to cut costs and protect the environment. These days, manufacturers use lithium-ion batteries to power most EVs. Currently, manufacturers guarantee their batteries for eight to 10 years, but they recycle few batteries because recycling processes are complex and costly.
Among the necessary materials used to make lithium-ion batteries are lithium, cobalt, nickel, graphite, and manganese. Better recycling methods could help solve problems related to the limited availability and rising costs of these materials.
Most recycling methods under development involve breaking the batteries down into smaller pieces. Then, recyclers use different processes to separate the metallic elements. The goal is to reuse as much material as possible.
According to an International Energy Agency (IEA) report about the development of the EV market in 2020, the main elements of end-of-life EV battery systems can be repurposed or used in a new way. This could include using old EV batteries to store power for other systems, such as a municipal electric grid. The report suggests recycled batteries also could be linked with systems producing electricity from wind or the sun.
Some researchers have experimented with methods to recycle main electric battery parts fully. One way uses ultrasonic waves to recycle these essential elements without having to break them apart. Other researchers have studied a process called hydrometallurgy, which uses liquids and chemicals to remove lithium and other elements from used batteries for use in new ones.
Ultimately, recycling and repurposing batteries will help offset the carbon footprint of producing them. This effort will make EVs a cleaner and more sustainable proposition overall.
Electric vehicles support the world’s transition away from fossil fuels and toward cleaner renewable energy sources. There is little doubt about that. But how long that will take and the actual impact on the environment remains to be seen. Only time will tell.