‘The first casualty of war is the truth’, and for certain industries such as ‘Big Oil’, there is a genuine threat to their survival. Oil and fossil fuel energy companies know they face ruin if they either don’t transition to renewables or stop the EV revolution. In a fight for survival they will be using every trick in the book, including paying scientists to produce research showing that EVs are more harmful to the environment than EVs.
Many news outlets have their own agendas. Rupert Murdoch, owner of the Wall Street Journal, the Sun and The Times, is a known climate change denier. There are other examples in the UK media too, papers that often don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story!.Media outlets like these happily promote anti-EV stories. Even the BBC has been known to tell untruths on the matter!
Nevertheless, it is undoubtable that EV battery battery production is harmful to the environment. Over the life of the car though, it soon claws that back. Let’s now look at what goes into batteries and how they harm the environment.
Elements of a Battery
As we discussed in previous sections, there are a range of different EV batteries but today there are largely two that you will likely to run into. The Nickel Manganese Cobalt (NMC) battery contains a cathode with nickel, manganese and cobalt as well as lithium, copper and graphite. Meanwhile, the LFP has a cathode of lithium iron-phosphate as well as an anode of graphite and copper wiring connecting the cells.
Let’s take a look at the main elements in the sections below and their environmental impact.
One third of the world’s lithium comes from arid areas of Argentina and Chile, the main producers of the element. Despite the regions being dry, they use a lot of fresh water to extract the salts and then ship the lithium ores abroad to be processed.
China and Australia also have significant resources. These countries use heat from energy sources like coal to extract the lithium ores, which is harmful to the climate.
Over 70% of the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), one of the poorest countries in the world with highly questionable human rights records. The DRC has had a terrible time at the hands of the West through the centuries. The Belgian King did awful things to its population in the 1800s amounting to mass murder. In recent decades, mining companies have enriched its politicians while allowing the population to have an average income of just £800 a year. ‘Blood diamonds’ come from the DRC – it isn’t just cobalt being dug up there.
Some 90% of cobalt is mined by big mining companies that strip-mine large parts of the DRC’s lands for their ores. Strip-mining involves taking all the topsoil and vegetation off the surface and turning the land into a moonscape as the land is abused.
The mining companies present themselves as the ‘good guys’ but this is only relative. Smaller mining companies are known to use children as young as 7 years old to extract the ores from the ground and there are human rights abuses taking place throughout these organisations.
Though the largest global producer of nickel ores is Indonesia, these aren’t of good enough quality to go into battery production. Most nickel today goes into steel production, and this can allow Class II nickel ores to be used.
There are only three countries where Class I nickel ores are found in big quantities – Russia, China and Canada. Given the war in Ukraine as happening today you can immediately see ethical problems! Until Russia went into Ukraine, people thought China wasn’t exactly wonderful. That leaves Canada, which exploits the Arctic tundra by strip-mining for the element.
No, we’re not talking E+MC2! We are talking of the vast amounts of energy required to make batteries by extracting and purifying the ores into the metals that go into the cells and batteries. This is the most harmful aspect of battery production.
In the chart above you will see that battery production is a significant part of the overall CO2 emissions of an EV in its lifetime. Energy mix is another issue – Poland, which is where the majority of EV batteries are made for EU-made cars, relies heavily on coal for the energy producing those batteries. If we imagined that Norway, which has far and away the greenest energy mix in Europe, produced those batteries, the carbon intensity of production would drop dramatically.
Iron, Copper and Other Elements
Copper is used in all batteries and electronics. This is often strip-mined, as is iron. They are relatively benign compared to cobalt and lithium for example, but ultimately we need to ask ourselves if we need to consume so much as such massive resources would not be required!
The Ethical Supply Chain
Elon Musk famously said in regard nickel, he would award a “giant contract for a long period of time if you mine nickel efficiently and in an environmentally sustainable way”. This shows that the man at the apex of EV production is queasy about the harm done by production of his vehicles.
One of the big reasons that Musk has pushed LFP batteries for many of the vehicles he produces is that it is a cobalt free battery. However, LFPs don’t have the energy density or performance of NMC batteries. He has pushed chemists to produce batteries using minimal amounts of cobalt for his NMC powered vehicles, and the quantities of cobalt in batteries have fallen considerably over the years as a result.
Musk is no angel though, with his tweeting that the CIA should support a coup on a South American country so he could get his hands on the lithium! There are ways forward where it comes to improving the supply chain and this involves something that can be done everywhere in the world – reuse and recycling.
In the last 5-10 years we have seen huge advances in battery technology. Ten years ago it would have been impossible to get a car to do 1000km on a single charge yet Chinese luxury car makers Lucid have just put one into production. LFP wasn’t considered viable a decade ago yet millions of new cars in the next few years will have them due to advances in battery architecture.
The Holy Grail is to have a ‘solid state’ battery that has a solid electrolyte barrier between a reactive anode and cathode that cannot explode. The dream is you could put a MW of charge into it and discharge it with just as much speed. Cobalt wouldn’t be required at all! There are rumours the first solid state car battery could be in a Porsche in the next few years – don’t expect them to come cheap!
Reusing EV battery modules and cells at the end of their lives in the car can already be done today. Used EV batteries are stacked in containers and used as grid electricity storage. When the sun stops shining and the wind stops blowing, so these grid batteries kick in and keep the lights on, reducing our need for carbon based energy production.
Currently, political policies such as those from the EU don’t account for this, and as a result companies overlook this as a more environmentally sensitive step before recycling.
With millions of EVs on the road there are millions of tonnes of expensive metals in these vehicles that can be taken out and recycled.
There are ethical and environmental problems with battery recycling. The packaging of the batteries is often incinerated or goes to landfill.
Though many companies (Tesla among them) claim that they have extremely high rates of extraction of things like lithium, nickel and cobalt in their recycling processes, other companies aren’t achieving anything close. That we aren’t seeing EV manufacturers crowing about using recycled batteries in their vehicles in their ESG reports suggests we aren’t there yet.
A final point is to crush up, shred and boil the old batteries before extracting the expensive metals takes a lot of energy in its own right. This is why eminent journals like Nature are calling for reuse long before the recycling phase, as reuse takes a lot less energy (and the CO2 emitted from that) than recycling.
How Green is EV Production?
One way to look at EVs’ green credentials is that though large amounts of resources are still used in making them and driving them, most of it stays in use for the life of the vehicle. By contrast, crude oil is only used once in an ICE, yet takes more extraction of natural resources in terms of volume – and much of this ends up in the atmosphere unlike EV components.
We haven’t dodged the fact that EVs are resource hungry to produce. Let’s take a look at the next image to show the difference in energy use in the lifetime of an EV or an ICE by country in Europe.
As you can see, the production of an ICE vehicle takes fewer resources. It then produces far more pollution in its lifetime than the EV. This is complicated by the energy mix of the electricity used to power the vehicle – Poland is a coal based energy user while Sweden at the other end relies far more heavily on renewables.
Poland is interesting as it is also the EU’s centre of battery manufacturing. It uses dirty energy to produce batteries. We have discussed previously that should Poland use wind and solar more, so battery production would be greener. The same applies on a global scale – China is the world’s biggest producer of EVs yet has a very dirty energy mix. Cars then have to be transported thousands of miles to European and US markets. That’s not good.
With energy being the single dirtiest part of battery production, as the world cleans up its act and moves away from fossil fuel to renewable energy production, so EVs will be greener. Though many climate experts say we aren’t moving quickly enough, we are at least moving. As the world transitions to renewables, so EVs will become less impactful on the environment.