Electric cars use much less raw material than internal-combustion vehicles, according to a new study from European advocacy group Transport & Environment, providing yet more evidence that their overall carbon footprint is lower.
The study looked at the amount of materials—considered collectively—that is "lost," meaning it can't be recycled or otherwise recovered. For an electric car, that's the relatively small amount of metal used in the battery pack, much of which can be recycled. For a gasoline or diesel car, that's thousands of barrels of oil over its lifetime.
The volume of fuel burned is 300 to 400 times the amount of material lost in making an EV battery pack, the study said.
That puts the environmental impact of electric power and internal combustion into perspective, and can hopefully clear up some misconceptions about the overall carbon footprint of EVs.
Emissions from sourcing raw materials such have cobalt have led some to doubt the efficacy of electric cars, even as studies have shown them to have consistently lower lifetime emissions than internal-combustion vehicles.
Oil well (photo by John Hill)
This study highlights the lifetime material consumption of fossil fuels for gasoline and diesel cars. A common argument from critics is that electric cars also indirectly account for the burning of fossil fuels by plugging into the grid but, while the specific amount of emissions vary by region, studies have shown that the lifetime carbon emissions of EVs are still very low with the current electricity-generating mix. EVs can also get cleaner as the grid switches to renewable energy.
Another factor considered by this study, and often missed by other analyses, is battery recycling.
While it's impossible to recycle fossil fuels, recycling could lessen the need for new raw materials for batteries, the study said. In Europe, over a fifth of the lithium and nickel, and 65% of the cobalt, needed to make a new battery could come from recycling by 2035.
Technological advancements could also reduce the need for raw materials, the study said, predicting that the amount of lithium needed to make a battery could be reduced by half over the next decade. Cobalt could be reduced by more than three quarters, and nickel by one fifth, according to the study.
Transport & Environment predicts Europe will likely produce enough batteries to supply its own EV market this year. It's unclear when the United States will get to that point, but President Joe Biden's recent Executive Order aims to secure the domestic supply chain for EV battery production—including both raw materials and manufacturing. It's a step in the right direction.