Algeria, April 12, 2018

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Electric vehicles power ahead, despite the bumps in the road

No exhaust fumes – but they still have very real costs to the environment

The motor industry is accelerating towards a bright new electric future at breakneck speed. Deliveries of pure battery electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid vehicles climbed 58 per cent in 2017 to just over 1.2 million, according to market researcher EV Volumes. Sales are forecast to jump by a further 55 per cent in 2018, bringing the total number on the road to more than five million.

Growth should continue as prices fall. Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts the price of lithium-ion battery packs will fall by 67 per cent between 2017 and 2030, and that by 2040 electric vehicles will make up 54 per cent of the market, against 1.3 per cent in 2017.

The motor industry is jumping on the lithium-powered bandwagon. By 2020, there will be 225 models of electric car available globally, according to Bloomberg. From 2019, all new Volvo models will be either partially or completely battery-powered, and in 2020 Jaguar Land Rover will follow suit. In China, the world’s biggest auto market, two major manufacturers will drop internal combustion engines after 2025.

For many countries, electric vehicles offer a desperately needed solution to harmful levels of air pollution, which the United States-based Health Effects Institute states is the leading environmental cause of death worldwide. In its State of Global Air 2017 report, it said that long-term exposure to fine particulate matter, generated by petrol and diesel cars as well as other sources, contributed to 4.2 million premature deaths in 2015, half of which were in China and India. Chinese government research showed that vehicles were the biggest source of pollution in four major cities in 2015: Beijing, Hangzhou, Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

While electric vehicles do not emit toxic nitrogen oxide fumes and are already contributing to cleaner air in many polluted cities, some scientists point out that wear on brake discs and tyres still generate harmful particulates. A 2014 report by the European Commission estimated that exhaust and non-exhaust sources contribute almost equally to total traffic-related PM10 emissions, among the most harmful.

So an electric vehicle seems like an environmentally responsible consumer choice. But is it? In Norway, where electric vehicles run almost exclusively on the nation’s copious hydropower, the carbon emissions associated with driving them are indeed low. But in coal-burning countries such as China, Germany and South Africa, aren’t they merely shifting emissions from vehicle exhausts to power plants?

In the US, for example, there are major differences between, say, California, which has one of the highest proportions of renewable electricity in the country, and the Midwest, where coal fuels the bulk of electricity generation. A report published by Scientific American in 2016 found that an electric vehicle in California would produce only 100 grams of CO2 per mile, but in fossil fuel-dependent Minnesota an electric car would emit three times as much.

In short, electric cars are as clean as the electricity that charges them. The good news is that investment in renewable power shows no signs of slowing. In 2017, $334 billion was invested in clean energy generation capacity worldwide, an increase of 3 per cent on the year before, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. In addition, the cost of renewables has continued to fall, with the cost of solar cells dropping by a quarter 2015 to 2017.

Emissions during lithium-ion battery manufacturing are another important factor to consider. Lithium mining is energy-intensive and heavily carbon-emitting. “In the short term, the CO2 footprint from [lithium] ‘hard rocks’ is less than ideal,” Meanwhile, the chemicals used in brine processing – an alternative method of lithium extraction – can harm communities, ecosystems and food production, says Friends of the Earth.

Lithium-ion batteries also use cobalt, some of which is “mined by children and adults in horrendous conditions in the Democratic Republic of Congo”, according to Amnesty International. Amnesty researcher Mark Dummett says: “While we do not know where most of it ends up, it is reasonable to assume that it is entering the supply chains of the handful of companies which dominate the car battery market.”

Nickel, another key battery component, also has a poor environmental and health record. Epidemiological studies of workers employed in its production show an association between exposure to nickel compounds and lung and nasal cancer.

There are concerns that supplies of critical metals like cobalt and lithium are dwindling. In late-2017, Volkswagen failed to secure a contract to supply enough cobalt for 150 gigawatt-hours of lithium-ion battery storage by 2025. “Recycling is going to be key if we’re to keep up with battery demand,” says The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in an article on their website. “Direct recycling technologies could enable recovery of high-value products,” it adds.

Perhaps the greatest challenge to accelerating electric vehicle adoption is the limited availability of public chargers. Charging points for electric vehicles in Europe grew by 20 per cent between 2016 and 2017, with Germany showing the largest increase, according to charging infrastructure developer NewMotion.

The road ahead will be bumpy, but the sector is still in the early stages of development and it will take time for an electric vehicle ecosystem to fully evolve. However, propelled by the might of the world’s major developed economies and now the giants of the motor industry, the transition to electric vehicles is a one-way street.

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