The tale of EV vs ICE: Lifecycle emissions

In the grand scheme of climate change, electric vehicles (EVs) have been hailed as an important part in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. But some still question their lifetime emissions and ability to dethrone internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEVs).

By: Rigmor Haga, Sustainability Director

From cradle to grave

When making a lifecycle assessment (LCA) for an EV comparing it to its diesel and petrol counterparts, a holistic approach must be taken where not only use and particle matter (PM) emissions are considered but also emissions created by production, reuse, recycling and disposal. Everything from raw material extraction, battery manufacturing and availability of renewable battery power sources need to be taken into account.

In general, EVs have a challenging impact on the environment before they even hit the road with the manufacturing of a typical EV battery resulting in higher CO2 emissions and negative environmental effects through lithium mining. However, EVs tend to compensate for this initial carbon deficit. With no tailpipe

emissions, they swiftly outperform ICEVs in operational efficiency and environmental impact.

According to Transport & Environment – a European NGO promoting sustainable transport – most EVs will reach emission parity in one or two years and will “quickly ‘repay’ their carbon debt” (1). Even for the worst-case scenarios, where an EV has a battery produced in China and is driven in Poland – the most GHG emission intensive country in Europe (2) – the EV will still emit 37% less CO2 than a conventional petrol car (3). This advantage will only be amplified as the European electricity grid becomes greener with the 2030 renewable energy source target currently set at 42.5% for the EU electricity supply (4) and as the end-of-life management of EV batteries develop. In 2023

Swedish research were able to recover 100% of the aluminium and 98% of the lithium in an EV battery (5).

Designed to go the distance

The longer the EV is in service, the more pronounced its environmental benefits become. However, one of the main concerns people have when considering the switch from a conventional car to an EV, is battery life. According to Forbes, experts say an EV battery will last between 10 to 20 years with proper care and maintenance (6). And, curiously enough, the automakers own warranties, like that of Volkswagen, also tell a story of higher confidence in their EVs with a warranty of up to 100 000 miles compared to 60 000 miles for their conventional cars (7).

Scarcity and supply

So, what about scarcity in metals that are key components in EV batteries? We may indeed be faced with a worldwide lithium shortage in the near future, experts at World Economic Forum say (8). Concerns have also been raised that lithium shortage will deepen the global dependency on specific nations. When it comes to geopolitics, several countries, including Bolivia, Argentina and Australia top the list of lithium reserves. This offers a promising perspective on diversifying sources for EV batteries, potentially reducing global dependence on any single nation for the green transition (9).

But there are also much effort and resources poured into R&D to come up with new technology. Not only are developments within recycling accelerating, giving access to recycled lithium, but alternatives are being explored as well. Among these are cars powered by sodium-ion batteries – yes, salt! – which Volkswagen-backed JAC Motors recently rolled off the assembly line as the first in the world (10, 11).

It seems EVs will continue to be the linchpin of the green revolution after all.