The bushfires of Australia made it painfully clear that Earth’s climate is changing in a rapid and radical way. The global average temperatures are rising, the weather is becoming increasingly extreme in many areas, the polar ice caps are slowly melting away, and the temperature record highs are getting higher each year. There is a scientific consensus on the causes of this change: we are (at least in part) responsible for it.
The electric car is largely seen as one of the solutions to our problem. Their carbon emissions are pretty much inexistent, they are clean, green, and they deliver the same performance as their gas-powered counterparts. But are electric cars really as clean and green as we think? The answer is “not exactly” if you look at the big picture.
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Electricity is not carbon neutral
Electric cars run on electricity, so their carbon emissions when used are pretty close to zero. But how is electricity produced? In an ideal world, it would all come from environmentally friendly sources: solar panels, wind turbines, nuclear reactors, and such. We don’t live in an ideal world, though – much of the power we consume comes from power stations burning natural gas and coal – and these contribute a great deal to the global carbon emissions. Coal-burning power stations alone add 10 gigatons of carbon dioxide to the total each year. And while they are being retired slowly in many countries, they are the only viable solution in others even today.
Sourcing, production, batteries
To assess the total environmental impact of an electric car, we have to take into account its entire lifecycle, from production to recycling. And when we look at the big picture, taking into account the mining of rare metals used in their production, the production of the batteries (that are usually filled with toxic chemicals), and the production process itself, we’ll see that they do contribute to the global greenhouse gas “supply”.
Manufacturing a medium-sized electric car comes with 15% (and this grows to 70% in the case of a high-end EV) more greenhouse gas emissions than the production of a similar-sized gas-powered car. And this fact has been repeatedly used by the opponents of the EVs as an argument against them.
The even bigger picture
Electric cars are not carbon neutral. If we take into account everything from pulling lithium from the ground to pushing the battery back into a recycling plant, they come with a pretty hefty bag of carbon attached to them.
Why should you switch to electric then, you might ask? Well, for one, because electric cars are still four times “greener” than their gas-powered counterparts!
While the carbon produced while building an EV is more, the carbon produced while driving an EV is far less than in the case of a gas-guzzling traditional car.
At the same time, an ever-increasing number of countries around the world are beginning to phase out their carbon-spewing power plants, transitioning to cleaner options. Many countries have pledged to become entirely carbon-neutral within decades.
While electric cars are not yet completely green, they are slowly becoming greener each year, thanks to the sound policies and regulations of governments and the tireless work of scientists.
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