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Transition to electric cars: A sustainable solution?

Electric cars are becoming increasingly popular around the world. They not only offer a potential solution for combatting the climate crisis, but they also serve as a worthwhile alternative to classic fossil fuel vehicles.

In 2019, the sales of electric vehicles exceeded two billion units on a global scale. In Europe, Norway is the leading country in terms of new electric vehicle registrations, followed by the Netherlands. While these numbers seem staggering, electric vehicles still only account for around 1 percent of the global car stock. However, they have definitely gained momentum. What is more, many countries and cities have announced plans to ban petrol and diesel vehicles in 20-25 years. Amsterdam aims to phase out all polluting vehicles by 2030, leaving only electric cars in the city. The UK has also recently announced its plans to bring forward the ban on new fossil fuel vehicles from 2040 to 2030 hoping to trigger a green economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

A SUSTAINABLE SOLUTION: TO WHAT EXTENT?

While it is indisputable that electric vehicles (EVs) are much “greener” than their petrol and diesel counterparts and they are currently being the way forward in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, how sustainable they really are is still a critical question. Like almost everything, EVs have a downside too. They run on lithium-ion batteries, and once these wear out, they pose a substantial environmental and waste-management challenge. One might ask the question – why not recycle? This sounds easy enough, however, in practice, things are more complicated. At the moment, there is a large recycling gap for batteries. In 2017, only 5 percent of the disposed lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) were recycled in the EU. This is an extremely small percentage, which implies that most worn-out LIBs end up being dumped into landfills, where they run the risk of heating up and exploding and thus, deflating toxic gases into the environment. Moreover, the core ingredients of the LIBs are (surprisingly) lithium and cobalt. These elements are not only finite, but their extraction also comes with, inter alia, water pollution. Not to mention that the high demand for these elements induces more child labour in the mining regions of developing countries. Furthermore, even when LIBs are recycled, to recover lithium from them entirely becomes a costly and tedious enterprise.

Fortunately, there are ways to solve the environmental challenges posed by lithium-ion batteries. One way is to recycle more and better. The main barrier to effective recycling lies at the heart of policy-making. Since the industry of lithium-ion batteries does not have a well-defined path to universal economic recycling, researchers and manufacturers did not emphasise improving recyclability. Their focus shifted more towards lowering costs while improving battery longevity and charge capacity. However, with sufficiently strict regulations, battery manufacturers would be incentivised to “design for recycling.”


Another solution could lie in the re-use of the depleted batteries – most worn-out electric vehicle batteries still retain around 80 percent of their capacity, which means they could be used for home energy storage, elevators or street lights.

CLIMATE AND POLLUTION PROBLEM SOLVED?

While it is tempting to believe that the climate crisis will be solved by substituting fossil fuel vehicles with electric cars, this might not entirely be the case. To cut fossil fuel use, systematic economic and social change is necessary. Keeping the current transport system as it is while switching from petrol and diesel cars to electric ones, might seem the way to go. Yet, the structural failure of our current transport system with overcrowded roads can hardly be cured through such a substitution. At this point, it remains undisputed that EVs reduce carbon gas emissions and are a greener option. However, bans on fossil fuel vehicles usually mean that the purchase of new fossil-fuel vehicles will not be possible, leaving already bought cars in use for some period.

Moreover, electric cars, just as their petrol and diesel counterparts, run on tyres which are responsible for a large portion of microplastics in the air. These particles form more than half of road transport pollution. This, taken cumulatively with the earlier described problems posed by the lithium-ion batteries, might suggest that the roots of these problems go further beyond the types of vehicles we are using – the problem might lie in the inadequacy of our urban designs. Creating small(er) neighbourhoods within cities with schools, shops, parks, and workplaces within reachable distances for everyone might offer a long-term solution to the problems that we are facing as well as bring forward a structural change. 

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