Electric car
Although there are no CO2 emissions produced by electric cars while driving, they produce plenty in other stages of their lifecycle. Photo: Hailey Otten/Fulcrum
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Electric cars produce more CO2 emissions in the manufacturing process than the conventional car

With climate activists like Greta Thunberg taking the world by storm, many people are starting to become a part of the current climate crisis conversation. People are taking action. Some make a change through education and transitioning to more sustainable lifestyles, while others opt for one of the more popular changes: electric cars. 

With more and more people transitioning to them, I wonder if they really are sustainable, or if people are simply buying them for the hype. 

Climate change is the earth’s rising temperature through human influence. One of the main ways this occurs is through the burning of fossil fuels, which results in CO2 air pollution (greenhouse gas). Transportation alone is responsible for 25 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Due to this concern, people are switching to electric cars which produce no CO2 emissions while driving

However, what people fail to realize that, is although there are no CO2 emissions produced by electric cars while driving, they produce plenty in other stages of their lifecycle. 

Beginning with manufacturing, electric cars are typically manufactured in the same way as a conventional car: assembled in a large factory using the local power source of the nearest city. 

An additional concern regarding the environmental efficacy of electric cars is the difference in batteries between their batteries and the batteries of a conventional car. While electric cars use a lithium ion battery to power the car, conventional cars utilize lead-acid batteries 

The problem with lithium ion batteries is they require rare earth metals: lithium, nickel, cobalt, and graphite. This is a climate concern, since these rare metals can only be acquired by mining — which is a pollutant-producing process. The negative impacts of mining include deforestation, soil contamination and release of toxins in local wetlands. Inadvertently, this results in electric cars producing more CO2 emissions in the manufacturing process than the conventional car. 

When driving electric cars, consumers produce no CO2 emissions since they use electricity instead of gasoline. However, the sustainability of a vehicle is determined by more than just this one metric. It is integral to also take into account how the electric energy was generated. If a car charging station is not 100 per cent powered by a renewable energy source such as wind, solar, or hydroelectric energy, then it is based on fossil fuel sources such as coal, or oil, thus, producing greenhouse gas emissions. 

Such is the case for the majority of people who charge their electric cars at home, which in turn uses the main energy source of that city. For instance, in Canada, our power comes from 60 per cent hydroelectric, 15 per cent nuclear, 7 per cent coal, 11 per cent gasoline/oil, and 7 per cent non-hydro renewable. While most of our energy comes from renewable resources, a significant portion is not — therefore producing CO2 emissions while charging. 

While this amount of CO2 is minimal in comparison to the amount that combustion cars produce on a daily basis, research has shown that electric car lifespans are shorter than conventional cars. A typical conventional car has a lifespan of 250,000 km before it is recommended to get a new car. With the average Canadian driving approximately 16,000 km per year, the conventional car can last up to 15 years. However, for an electric vehicle, experts say that the lithium-ion battery lasts up to 160,000 km. With the need to replace the costly lithium-ion battery every 10 years, along with the expensive price tag on electric cars, it makes people wonder if they truly are more sustainable. 

Finally, how much waste do electric cars produce? The main waste for electric cars are the lithium-ion batteries. In conventional cars, 99 per cent of the lead-acid car batteries are recycled in the US. In contrast, less than 5 per cent of the batteries of electric cars are recycled with the rest ending up in landfills. Those that are recycled are smelted using heat and fossil fuels that produce CO2 emissions. Overall, this process produces more waste than conventional cars. 

In conclusion, are electric cars more sustainable than conventional cars? No. Well, at least for now. However, the future looks promising. With new technologies, researchers are searching for more efficient types of batteries and how they can be better recycled. Hoping to find more sustainable ways to power electric cars, provides more sustainable options in the future. This leads to other questions: will there even be a need for cars in the future? Will electric cars be the main provider of transportation?