Why battery power might not be as green as you think

Environmental awareness is one of the most influential political trends of the past half century, driving changes in rules and laws on everything from carbon emissions and ozone depleting substances to clean beaches and industrial dumping. It has affected the transport sector dramatically, especially road transport: vehicle emissions are far less toxic than just a generation ago. The latest technologies are shifting cars and trucks away from fossil fuels and onto electric engines- but are these battery-powered vehicles as green as they say?

The reality is a bit more complicated. Of course, electric vehicles have no exhaust fumes, which have historically been the cause of much damage to human health and the wider environment.

But they still might be powered by carbon-emitting fossil fuels. Battery energy can often come from the same coal, oil and gas that we are trying to steer away from. For example, more than half of Germany’s electricity is generated from coal and gas.

Beyond the emissions savings, there are other environmental issues with electric vehicles. If you translate the production of batteries into emissions, the overall carbon footprint of a battery-powered car is similar to that of a conventional car, according to a study* by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IFEU) in Heidelberg.

That’s not all. Batteries also need minerals like copper, lithium and cobalt, and rare elements like neodymium. They are mined in places like China, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Latin America, where there has already been colossal ecological damage from dust, fumes, wastewater, water shortages and toxic spills.

A final question concerns what happens when we eventually get rid of the batteries. Due to the toxic chemicals inside the batteries, the end-of-life procedures are much more complicated than conventional steel engines that can be recycled relatively easily. A Tesla battery is big – up to half a tonne – and only a few companies currently specialize in recycling them.

There is a lot riding on this economically. The European automotive battery market is estimated to be worth an estimated €250 billion by 2025. Electric and hybrid vehicles are expected to account for 30% of the global market by 2030, according to commodities analysts CRU.

The European Union is also trying to address the issue by promoting research into better batteries: last year, the European Commission launched an alliance of local companies aiming to build 10-20 huge battery factories.

Electric and hybrid technologies are developing fast, and we can expect them to transform the automotive sector in the years to come. But the environmental transformation may take a little longer than planned.


* Federal Environment Ministry (BMU)-sponsored “Fleet Test Electric Mobility”, IFEU, 2013 – Advances in Battery Technologies for Electric Vehicles, Bruno Scrosati, Woodhead Publishing.