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Their batteries hurt the environment, but EVs still beat gas cars. Here’s why

  • By Camila Domonoske/NPR
A general view of a pit in Tenke Fungurume Mine, one of the largest copper and cobalt mines in the world, owned by Chinese company CMOC, in southeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, on June 17, 2023. The Democratic Republic of Congo produces over 70 percent of the global supply of cobalt. The metal is a critical component of batteries and seen as key to the renewable energy transition. (Photo by Emmet LIVINGSTONE / AFP) (Photo by EMMET LIVINGSTONE/AFP via Getty Images)

 Emmet Livingstone / AFP via Getty Images

A general view of a pit in Tenke Fungurume Mine, one of the largest copper and cobalt mines in the world, owned by Chinese company CMOC, in southeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, on June 17, 2023. The Democratic Republic of Congo produces over 70 percent of the global supply of cobalt. The metal is a critical component of batteries and seen as key to the renewable energy transition. (Photo by Emmet LIVINGSTONE / AFP) (Photo by EMMET LIVINGSTONE/AFP via Getty Images)

Earlier this year, NPR’s podcast The Sunday Story reached out for listener questions about electric vehicles. You can hear the resulting podcast here. We’re also taking some of the most-asked questions and answering them here on NPR.org.

Electric vehicles are sometimes called “zero-emission vehicles.” But the batteries that go into them are not zero-emission at all. In fact, making those batteries takes a lot of (mostly-not-clean) energy and hurts the environment in other ways, a fact that’s become common knowledge after widespread media coverage.

Does that environmental damage cancel out the green benefits of giving up gasoline? Or, as Jennifer Sousie, who owns a Nissan Leaf, put it: “Does the manufacturing and ultimate disposal of the batteries completely negate all the good that the no-emission aspect of my car does?”

The answer is no. Here’s why.

Batteries do more harm upfront – then less year after year

With all that’s required to mine and process minerals — from giant diesel trucks to fossil-fuel-powered refineries — EV battery production has a significant carbon footprint. As a result, building an electric vehicle does more damage to the climate than building a gas car does.

But the gas car starts to catch up as soon as it goes its first mile.

If you look at the climate impact of building and using a vehicle – something called a “lifecycle analysis” – study after study has found a clear benefit to EVs. The size of the benefit varies – by vehicle, the source of the electricity it runs on, and a host of other factors – but the overall trend is obvious.

“The results were clearer than we thought, actually,” says Georg Bieker, with the International Council on Clean Transportation, who authored one of those reports. (This is the group that busted Volkswagen for cheating on its emissions tests. Holding industries accountable for whether they’re actually reducing emissions is the ICCT’s whole thing.).

Building a battery is an environmental cost that’s paid once. Burning gasoline is a cost that’s paid again, and again, and again.

Gasoline’s environmental cost is ongoing

Several listeners asked NPR about the negative impacts of mines, beyond carbon emissions. There are several: They disrupt habitats. They pollute with runoff or other waste. And people can suffer in other ways: worker poisonings, child labor, indigenous communities’ rights violated and more.

Thea Riofrancos is a political scientist who has sounded the alarm about these impacts. She’s glad people are asking these questions – which she’d like to see them do for more than just EVs. “The fact that mined products are in basically everything we use should give us pause,” she says.

And, she says, anybody weighing an EV versus a gas-powered car needs to think just as carefully about the other side of the equation: the cost of relying on fossil fuels.

“A traditional car needs mining every day, needs mining every time it’s used. It needs the whole extraction complex of fossil fuels in order to power it,” she said.

The carbon pollution from burning gasoline and diesel in vehicles is the top contributor to climate change in the U.S. And there are other costs: Oil spills; funding for corrupt oil-rich regimes; the illnesses and preventable deaths caused by pollution from fossil fuels.

Add it up, she says, and if you’re concerned about all the harms from mining, you’ll still want to choose an EV over a comparable gas car.

New technology and better practices can reduce EVs’ footprint

There are several ways that manufacturing EVs could become cleaner.

Public pressure and a shift toward mining in regions with stronger regulations, like the U.S. instead of China, could reduce the harms done in mines. New technology, like a mining method called “direct lithium extraction,” could produce minerals with much smaller footprints.

Batteries are also changing. A group called Lead the Charge is evaluating automakers on their efforts to clean up supply chains and source materials ethically; there’s a wide range of ratings.

Right now, if you want to avoid cobalt in your battery because of the horrific mining conditions, you could seek out an LFP battery, which is made without cobalt – they’re used in vehicles like the Tesla Model 3 and Ford Mach-E. In the future, batteries based on sodium might be an alternative to lithium.

And last but not least, battery minerals can be recycled. This won’t meaningfully reduce the need for mining until huge numbers of EVs on the road have reached the end of their lifespan. But eventually, the same molecules of lithium and nickel could be used for many generations of cars – something that can’t be said for fossil fuels. (Recycling batteries is also important because it addresses environmental concerns about the risks of throwing them out.)

A battery pack and GM's new Hummer EV stand outside an event where General Motors announced an investment of more than $7 billion in four Michigan manufacturing sites on January 25, 2022 in Lansing, Michigan. - General Motors will create 4,000 new jobs and retaining 1,000, and significantly increasing battery cell and electric truck manufacturing capacity. This is the single largest investment announcement in GM history. The investment includes construction of a new Ultium Cells battery cell plant in Lansing and the conversion of GM's assembly plant in Orion Township, Michigan for production of the Chevrolet Silverado EV and the electric GMC Sierra, GM's second assembly plant scheduled to build full-size electric pickups. (Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY / AFP) (Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images)

A battery pack and GM’s new Hummer EV stand outside an event where General Motors announced an investment of more than $7 billion in four Michigan manufacturing sites on January 25, 2022 in Lansing, Michigan. – General Motors will create 4,000 new jobs and retaining 1,000, and significantly increasing battery cell and electric truck manufacturing capacity. This is the single largest investment announcement in GM history. The investment includes construction of a new Ultium Cells battery cell plant in Lansing and the conversion of GM’s assembly plant in Orion Township, Michigan for production of the Chevrolet Silverado EV and the electric GMC Sierra, GM’s second assembly plant scheduled to build full-size electric pickups. (Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY / AFP) (Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images)

What’s best for the planet? Smaller batteries, fewer vehicles

Meanwhile, for people who want to minimize their impact on the environment today, Riofrancos has some advice.

First, ask whether you need a car at all. Riofrancos is a big advocate for bikes and public transit, which have much smaller footprints than an EV. But she also knows first-hand that many parts of the U.S. are not designed for car-free living – after years as a bike commuter, she now lives in Providence, Rhode Island, where that doesn’t work. (She tried.)

She and her husband recently replaced their vehicle. “I was not going to buy another car that uses gasoline, knowing what I know about the climate,” she says. “But I also have a lot of question marks about EVs, knowing what I know about EV supply chains.”

So after careful consideration, she bought an EV. But not just any EV. A used Chevy Bolt, which is a small EV – smaller batteries require less mining. And since it was used, it was both more affordable and already had more than made up for the impacts of its manufacturing through the gasoline it had saved.

Listeners worried about battery mining impacts are asking the right questions, Riofrancos says. And the answers are more complicated than “yes” or “no” to EVs – they might include what kind of EV, what size and type of battery, and whether to buy a car at all.

“You know, there’s no perfect world out there, but there is better and worse and everything in between,” Riofrancos says.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript :

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We’re often told that electric cars are good for the environment. But NPR listeners are a skeptical bunch. So when we asked for your questions about EVs, you came back with, how green are they really, especially with those batteries? Well, you asked, we answer. Actually, Camila Domonoske answers. She is NPR’s correspondent covering cars. Hey, Camila.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Let’s start with that opening question. What have you found in your reporting? Are electric vehicles better for the environment?

DOMONOSKE: Than gas cars are? Yes. This is the No. 1 question that we got, and the short answer is EVs are cleaner. There’s a much longer answer. How much cleaner varies. How many emissions you get from the grid are a big factor. But there’s a ton of research that factors in – the mining that goes into batteries, the electricity that’s often produced from fossil fuels, the impacts of battery recycling. Add it all up, and the pattern is extremely clear. EVs are better for the climate than gas-powered cars.

SHAPIRO: OK, better than gas-powered cars, but tell us more about what goes into the batteries specifically and what impact that might have on the environment.

DOMONOSKE: Yeah, it is substantial. The minerals that go into batteries – things like lithium, nickel, cobalt – mining, pulling them out of the earth, has a big climate impact upfront. In fact, when they roll out of the factory, an EV is responsible for more carbon emissions than a comparable gas car. But then the cars get driven. And very quickly, that gasoline-powered car catches up and then has a much bigger footprint over time than the EV does. Again, that includes the emissions from the power grid.

It’s also possible to recycle the battery in an EV. That addresses concerns about disposing the battery, and it also means that in the future, we’ll need less mining to make batteries, which makes the benefit even bigger over time.

SHAPIRO: And that seems like a very clear answer to the question about carbon emissions. But don’t people have other concerns about mining, like habitat disruption and the like?

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. And runoff and waste and things that aren’t environmental – child labor, perfect mining conditions in the Congo to make cobalt – that’s all very real. And on the fossil fuel side, there are deaths from pollution from burning oil and gas. There’s oil spills. There’s corrupt regimes supported by oil. These are things that it’s harder to do math about, right? Thea Riofrancos is a political scientist who has sounded the alarm about mining for battery materials. In fact, here she is on NPR last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

THEA RIOFRANCOS: We see impacts on water systems where there’s water use by lithium mining or contamination of water. We see impacts on biodiversity. We also see concerning social impacts.

DOMONOSKE: So when I got all these questions from listeners, I called Riofrancos up. I told her, we have people asking, OK, this mining sounds terrible. Are EVs even good? Are they better than gas cars? And she said, first of all, that she was very glad that people are thinking about this topic. And then she said this.

RIOFRANCOS: With a traditional car, less mining is needed to create the car, but more ongoing mining is needed to extract the oil that becomes the gasoline that powers the car.

DOMONOSKE: So her assessment, and she was very clear that she is not dismissing the harms done by mining for batteries, but she said the fossil fuel vehicle still creates more damage overall.

SHAPIRO: OK. So if we’re imagining a hierarchy of impact of commuting styles with gas vehicles and better than that is electric vehicles, is there a better option than that?

DOMONOSKE: Bikes, public transit, absolutely. And even within EVs, Riofrancos emphasizes a smaller EV has a smaller battery. So, when she couldn’t bike to work, what she did was she bought an EV, but she picked a small one.

SHAPIRO: That’s NPR’s Camila Domonoske, who answers more of your questions about EVs on our podcast The Sunday Story, and we’ll link to it on our npr.org page. Thanks, Camilla.

DOMONOSKE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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