Electric cars and climate change – challenges and opportunities

Electric cars and climate change – challenges and opportunities

Electric cars are currently experiencing a major development drive as governments increasingly view their low emission potential as a means of tackling climate change. As the UK government pushes to ban new cars with internal combustion engines by 2030 (1), electric cars are likely to become the new normal.

Electric cars, unlike cars with internal combustion engines, run exclusively on ion batteries, and these batteries make use of different materials. Lithium ions are found in battery cells, where they flow between a positively charged electrode (anode), generally made of graphite, to a negatively charged electrode (cathode) typically made of cobalt, manganese and nickel. This positive to negative current generates an electric current that drives the car’s engine.

Since these ion batteries drive a fully electric car engine and eliminate the need for an engine that burns fossil fuels and produces greenhouse gases, electric cars can run without producing emissions. It is therefore easy to see the appeal of electric cars in climate policy – nevertheless, there are still challenges in the implementation of electric cars to help tackle climate change.

Challenges with electric cars

A key environmental problem with EV recording is the many harmful effects of battery production. Compared to the production of an internal combustion engine car, EV production produces far greater acidification (from chemical reactions in my ores with rain and air) as well as over 3 times the concentration of particles and almost twice as much CO2 (2). Battery materials are also highly toxic, as the battery toxicity potential alone largely corresponds to the toxicity of both the production and use of an internal combustion engine car (3), which combined with their acidity potential can be harmful to the environment (4). Working conditions for miners are also often poor – cobalt miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the supplier of 60% of unprocessed cobalt, are directly exposed to toxic materials, including 40,000 child laborers in poorly regulated craft operations (4). Graphite mining for anode production, of which 70% occurs in China (5), also produces dust from the use of explosives, which can affect water supplies and crops (6).

In addition, the use of fossil fuels for charging electric cars combined with the damage caused by production can increase their environmental impact compared to cars with internal combustion engines. Although efficient charging technologies and the use of renewable energy sources can help tackle this, electrification of car fleets based on current energy sources could produce greater emissions globally and reduce their benefits (7), although it should be noted that many cars with internal combustion engines still produce higher CO2 – emissions (8).


Despite their problems, electric cars have great potential in reducing emissions and helping to tackle climate change. There are several ways we can overcome these issues, the main method being a reduction in dependence on fossil fuels for charging. A study (8) found that below the EU’s renewable energy target by 2030, battery-electric cars can have a total CO2 footprint of ~ 75 g CO2 per year. Km, between 125-350 g CO2 per. Kilometers for internal combustion motor vehicles, showing the potential of coupling renewable energy with electric vehicles.

Reducing dependence on mining can also help reduce the CO2 footprint of electricity generation. A study by the Chinese EV industry (9) found that recycling could reduce CO2 emissions from production by 21.8%. Increased recycling would reduce the EV industry’s dependence on raw material mining, and there are signs that this may become a reality, as Renault and Volkswagen have initiatives to recycle batteries (10, 11).

Another promising technology is the silicon anode – these can allow batteries to carry twice as much charge, in half the number of cells and a third of the weight of conventional batteries (6). However, these anodes can swell up to 280% during use, so further development will be required (12).

In general, new technologies show great potential in reducing the environmental impact of electricity generation and operation, ensuring the promise that these vehicles have to help tackle climate change. In the meantime, governments must focus on ensuring a smooth transition to renewable energy and better securing working and living conditions in mining communities.


(1) The government takes a historic step towards net-zero with the completion of the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030 (2020), GOV.UK, available at https://www.gov.uk/government/news/government- takes -historical-step-towards-net-zero-with-end-sale-of-new-petrol- and diesel-cars-before 2030 (date access: 08/08/2021)

(2) Del Pero, F., Delogu, M. og Pierini, M. (2018), ‘Life Cycle Assessment in the automotive sector: a comparative case study of Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) and electric car’, Procedia Structural Integrity , 12, pp.521-537

(3) Chłopek, Z. and Lasocki, J. (2013), ‘Comparison of the environmental impact of an electric car and a car with an internal combustion engine under Polish conditions using the life cycle assessment method’, Internal combustion engines, 154 (3), pp. 192-201

(4) Developing countries pay environmental costs for electric car batteries (2020), UNCTAD, available at https://unctad.org/news/developing-countries-pay-environmental-cost-electric-car-batteries (access date: 08/08/2021)

(5) Olson, DW, Virta, RL, Mahdavi, M., Sangine, ES and Fortier, SM (2016), ‘Natural graphite demand and supply – Implications for electric vehicle battery requirements’, in Wessel, GR and Greenberg, JK (ed.), Geoscience for the Public Good and Global Development: Toward a Sustainable Future, Geological Society of America, pp. 67-77

(6) Turcheniuk, K., Bondarev, D., Singhal, V. and Yushin, G. (2018), ten years back to the redesign of lithium-ion batteries, Nature, available at https: //www.nature. com / articles / d41586-018-05752-3 # ref-CR1 (accessed to date: 08/08/2021)

(7) Rievaj, V. and Synák, F. (2017), ‘Do electric cars produce emissions?’, Scientific Journal of Silesian University of Technology, Series Transport, 94, pp.187-197

(8) Helmers, E. and Weiss, M. (2017), ‘Progress and Critical Aspects in the Life Cycle Assessment of Battery Electric Cars’, Energy and Emission Control Technologies, 5, p.1-18

(9) Wang, L., Wang, X. and Yang, W. (2020), ‘Optimal design of electric vehicle recycling networks – From the perspective of electric car manufacturers’, Applied Energy, 275, 115328

(10) Schottey, N. (2017), Renault optimizes the life of its electric car batteries, Renault Group, available at https://www.renaultgroup.com/en/news-on-air/news/renault-optimizes- lifecycle- for-its-electric-vehicle-batteries / (date of access: 09/08/2021)

(11) Lithium to lithium, manganese to manganese (2021), Volkswagen AG, available at https://www.volkswagenag.com/en/news/stories/2019/02/lithium-to-lithium-manganese-to-manganese .html # (accessed: 09/08/2021)

(12) Martins, LS, Guimarães, LF, Botelho Junior, AB, Tenório, JAS and Espinosa, DCR (2021), ‘Electric car battery: An overview of global demand, recycling and future approaches to sustainability’, Journal of Environmental Management, 295 , 113091


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