Diesel, to Petrol, to Electric… Is This Really the Way Forward?

Incredible, in many cases now charging an electric vehicle is more expensive than a fossil fuelled car. And with 78% of electricity to power EV’s coming from fossil fuels – are we just fooling ourselves how environmentally friendly we are? After all, an average car is responsible for 17 tonnes of CO2 in just its production. During their lifetime an EV will produce 18 further tonnes of CO2 and a petrol or diesel car 24 tonnes.

With electric vehicle (EV) charging costs rising 84% in October, a Jaguar i-PACE SUV driver for example could soon be paying £99 more than petrol or diesel car drivers to go the same distance.

The transportation sector emits around 24% of global carbon emissions, yet it is one of the sectors most focused on in climate change discussions. Can a significant reduction of this percentage be the saving grace for NetZero targets by 2050, or is too much focus on one fifth of the world’s carbon footprint overshadowing the other sectors that are much more carbon intense?

In 2021, electric vehicle (EV) sales doubled from 2022, 6.6 million sold, a further 2 million were sold just in Q1 of 2022. In 2012 just 120,000 that were sold globally, it’s clear the market is growing exponentially. With 16.5 million electric cars on the world’s roads, it’s clearly a growing market. But with electricity prices now spiralling out of control, the switch will be hurting many.

Underneath the previous positives of the EV boom, however, lies a murkier truth – manufacturing processes for batteries that are anything but environmentally friendly.

The crux of the issue is lithium-ion (LI) batteries used in EV’s. In 2021, the global market for LI batteries was valued at $46.4 billion dollars, and this is set to grow to a whopping $91.9 billion by 2026.

One typical EV battery contains around 8kg of lithium, but the battery for the Tesla Model S, require around 12kg. To stick to the pledges made at the 2015 Paris Agreement, the demand for lithium for renewable technologies will likely rise by nearly 90% over the next two decades.

This is where the problem lies. Sourcing and extracting this lithium is far from a perfect process, and the strain on the environment is evident but not discussed.

Projected size of the global lithium-ion battery market from 2020-2026

Globally, as of 2019, there are 80 million tonnes of lithium reserves that have been identified. The countries producing the most lithium are Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, the US, Australia and China. Most of the leading areas for lithium extraction, however, are located in areas with significant water stress.

Extracting lithium requires a lot of water. And when we say a lot, we really mean a lot. To produce just one tonne of lithium, 2.2 million litres of water is needed. Each day of production eats up around 21 million litres. In areas where water reserves are undern      significant stress, this can cause huge environmental issues, particularly as droughts sweep the globe after unprecedented heatwaves.

Residents surrounding Chile’s Atacama salt flats have seen lithium production diverting resources away from local communities. In Argentina’s salt plain – Salar de Hombre Muerto – surrounding communities have experienced contaminated water supplies, affecting livestock, crop irrigation, and human health. 

Salt flats in Bolivia contain dense lithium reserves

The question remains then: how can the EV market strive to be more sustainable? One avenue is a better recycling system. By 2025, lithium-ion battery production created 600,000 tonnes of waste worldwide. This number is expected to skyrocket to 11 million tonnes by 2030. The industry must have tighter regulations imposed on it around recycling to mitigate this waste and increase the renewability of the entire battery manufacturing process.

For example, only 1 tonne of usable lithium can be extracted from 750 tonnes of lithium brine, or 250 tonnes of lithium ore. If efficient recycling methods are used, that same tonne can be extracted from just 28 tonnes of recycled batteries.

Scientists around the globe are also looking into alternative battery production for EVs. There’s sodium-ion batteries, which do not consume scarce resources – even regular table salt can be used to power them. There’s also research being done into extracting lithium from seawater – the world’s oceans contain an estimated 180 billion tonnes of it.

Both these options have their drawbacks. Sodium-ion batteries are far heavier than lithium-ion batteries and are less powerful, and scientists are still working towards extracting the ocean’s lithium from its diluted form. Considering efforts to pass a global protection treaty to protect the world’s oceans just failed, let’s hope for once this is not a solution scientists resolve.

One of the other suggestions is the use of magnesium. Its benefits are still being explored, but there is potential for each atom to produce two electrons. This means that a magnesium battery could produce twice as much electricity as its lithium-ion counterpart. The impact of this we are not sure of yet but unlikely to be the holy grail of environmentally friendly power production.

As the EV market continues to grow exponentially, the dark underbelly of the lithium used to power them has been revealed. We now have to ask ourselves how dedicated we truly are to renewable energy, and whether we are ready to put just as much effort into sectors like commercial real estate and construction as we do EV production. Electric vehicles may be shiny and new but, in the end, will their implementation deliver the results we desperately need for NetZero 2050.

Less car production, less car use is really what’s needed, but will we the users, the polluters, want to change our ways?

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