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EVs versus internal combustion vehicles: A sustainability comparison

Written by Mongabay Published on   10 mins read

Electric vehicles outperform internal combustion engine vehicles in terms of carbon emissions, but require comprehensive lifecycle assessments for an accurate comparison of their environmental impacts
  • Sales of electric vehicles are gathering pace, with numbers taking to the road steadily increasing in the US, Europe, and China, though that rollout is lagging far behind in emerging economies, especially in the Global South. That’s an issue that will need to be addressed if the world is to maximize transportation carbon cuts.
  • EVs clearly outperform internal combustion engines (ICEs) in their vehicle carbon emissions. But assessments must be made across the whole lifecycle of both types of vehicles to create true comparisons of environmental impacts and learn from them. EVs, for example, require lithium, the mining of which seriously pollutes.
  • Even the amount of emissions produced by EVs needs to be carefully evaluated. While the cars themselves are clean, total emissions vary greatly depending on how the electricity to run them is produced (if the electrical grid is powered by coal, oil, or gas, that’s very different from energy coming from wind and solar).
  • For EVs to achieve their full sustainability potential, every aspect of automotive production needs to be assessed not only for environmental impacts, but for their effects on society, livelihoods and more. The use of a circular economy blueprint for creating clean EV supply chains will be assessed in part two of this story.

This story is the second article of a two-part Mongabay mini-series focusing on the question of sustainability surrounding electric vehicles. Read part two here.

By 1900, the internal combustion engine was hailed as a way to clean up the world’s city streets, then heaped with unhealthful horse dung. Jump forward to 2023, and the internal combustion engine is at the heart of humanity’s existential woes. And poised in the driveway is our next great technological leap forward: electric vehicles.

But will they fulfill their potential as a climate solution without causing other environmental harm along the way?

Switching out carbon-intensive internal combustion engines (ICEs) for clean electric vehicles is well underway, and seen as key to tackling the automotive industry’s heavy climate footprint. But how do EVs stack up against ICEs environmentally overall, and what can we learn from our past mistakes? As with most sweeping technological transitions, the answer is complicated.

“There’s a large benefit for electric vehicles compared to combustion engines all over the world,” says Georg Bieker, a senior researcher at the International Council on Clean Transportation. His past research indicates that among “average, medium-size” vehicles, EVs have lower carbon emissions than ICEs: from 66–69% lower in Europe, to 60–68% in the US, 37–45% in China (the three current global EV powerhouses), and 19-34% in India. (The differences can be accounted for predominantly by diverse electrical grid mixes, with larger renewable shares increasing climate benefits.) Hybrid electric vehicles do less well, emitting more than EVs.

A sign painted on the pavement indicates an EV recharging station.
A sign painted on the pavement indicates an EV recharging station. Lifecycle assessments show that, currently, up to 50% of greenhouse gas emissions associated with EVs are concentrated during the production phase. Photo by Markus Distelrath (Pixabay).

More good news: over time, EVs will potentially become “cleaner and cleaner,” Bieker says, as the share of renewables expands in electric power grids. Reducing emissions for land transportation is thus contingent on “a combination of powertrain type and power source [with both] completely powered by renewable energy,” he states.

There are caveats, however, regarding how beneficial electric vehicles are currently, and will be in the future, based on how quickly national electricity grids shift to renewables, as well as where and how EV batteries, and other materials, are sourced and produced.

As beneficial as EVs promise to be in tackling transportation emissions, “we still need to clean up a lot of things in the supply chain” to improve overall environmental performance, says Sergey Paltsev, deputy director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change.

EVs are a “good explanatory case” of how solving one problem (ICEs and climate change) can exacerbate others as “we use more or different materials that also have impacts,” explains Jessika Richter, an associate senior lecturer at Sweden’s Lund University. For this reason, she warns against a rapid one-to-one ICE-for-EV switch as an immediate goal—not at least until those EV supply chain issues are resolved.

Photo of a vehicle tailpipe.
Advocates argue that a major benefit of EVs is the reduction in tailpipe emissions, a source of potentially lethal pollution. But a 2020 report by the US Congressional Research Service notes that EVs “may be responsible for greater human toxicity and ecosystems effects” than ICEs, due in part to mining—showing that there is a complex web of trade-offs across the lifecycles of both technologies. Photo by Lakeblog (Pixabay).
Photo of a mechanic working on an engine.
A mechanic works on an engine. As the ICE-to-EV transition takes place, experts underline that a circular economy approach that minimizes waste in closed production-recycling loops is vital to increase automotive sustainability and reduce environmental harm linked to light vehicles. Photo by Skica911 (Pixabay).

Looking beyond carbon emissions

Scientists tell us that climate change is just one of nine thresholds, known as planetary boundaries, upon which humanity is rapidly impinging. Transgression of those boundaries could dangerously destabilize natural Earth operating systems (such as the carbon and hydrologic cycles) on which life depends. Other boundaries include land-use change, pollution, and freshwater use. Crossing these thresholds is linked to a range of severe problems threatening biodiversity and livelihoods the world over.

Internal combustion engines and electric vehicles each have their own respective impacts on these boundaries; carbon emissions are only part of the story.

First off, cars, no matter how they’re powered, are complex machines, made of an astonishing number of parts. It takes 30,000 parts to build an average ICE car and roughly half that number for an EV. Those parts, composed of metals, plastics and other composite materials, must be sourced, crafted, shipped, assembled, sold, and eventually disposed of. These many lengthy intersecting automotive supply chains generate ever-rippling waves of environmental and social consequences as vehicle use increases. By 2050, the number of cars on the world’s road could swell from around 1.4 billion to more than 2 billion vehicles.

While each automotive part leaves its own discreet environmental trail, EV sustainability claims have so far been most marred by the mining of cobalt used to produce batteries. Today’s cobalt mining practices have been linked to human rights violations and environmental harm. The majority of the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, a nation likely to continue providing most of the mineral for lithium-ion batteries in the future. It’s worth noting that cobalt mining is also an ICE impact, since it’s used to cleanse sulfur from petroleum.

Lithium mining environmental footprint at Salar del Hombre Muerto, Argentina.
Lithium mining environmental footprint at Salar del Hombre Muerto, Argentina. Demand for EVs is driving up sourcing of a host of minerals and metals, such as lithium. Extracting them comes laden with social and environmental concerns. Photo by Coordenação-Geral de Observação da Terra (Flickr).
An electric vehicle recharging.
An electric vehicle recharging. Electric car sales are booming but are currently restricted to a few markets (including the US, Europe, China, and India), with limited distribution in the Global South. Photo by Lee Rosario (Pixabay).

Other materials used in EVs are equally vital to the global energy transition. According to the International Energy Agency, over the next two decades, EVs and other clean tech will consume up to 40% of copper demand, 60–70% of nickel, and up to 90% of global lithium. How those metals are mined matters to the global environment, as so does how they’re processed.

Recent analysis by the Global Carbon Project, for example, found that Indonesia’s CO2 emissions spiked in 2022, driven higher by coal-fired power plants needed to produce nickel, a core part of EV batteries.

It “is kind of ironic” that “the plants processing nickel for electric vehicles that are supposed to curb carbon emissions are powered by coal plants,” notes Pochoy Labog, a Southeast Asia researcher with the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre.

If EVs are to far surpass the climate and environmental performance of ICEs, then they’ll need to do so not only on the road, but in the power plants, mines and mills of the world, and on the ships and railroads that move finished cars to market, as well as in junkyards.

A separate report by Labog’s organization details allegations of human rights and environmental abuses against companies involved in the nickel supply chains of both Indonesia and the Philippines. “It’s merely a snapshot of two supply chains in two of the largest producers of nickel in Southeast Asia,” he says.

Scientists have underscored that human equity and well-being could mark a tenth planetary boundary; the concern being that violating the thresholds of those other nine boundaries could quickly lead to the undermining of basic human rights, to social chaos, economic collapse, and authoritarianism.

Photo of tires.
Both ICE vehicles and EVs are assembled from many parts and materials, each with their own supply chains and environmental impacts. Tires, for example, are associated with microplastic pollution, which experts warn will likely worsen with the adoption of EVs. Photo by Robert Laursoo (Unsplash).

Driving toward a circular economy

The meticulous, cradle-to-grave analysis that EV supply chains are undergoing today are not aimed at tarring electric vehicles for being unsustainable, experts say, but rather to place the new technology’s footprint under the microscope and identify where sustainability can be improved.

The ultimate goal, in fact, is to one day give up the cradle-to-grave linear economy production model completely, and replace it with a global circular economy model where nothing is wasted, and everything is reused endlessly.

“We acknowledge that we need to curb emissions, as climate change is an existential threat, especially to people in the Global South,” Labog says. “But we need to do it in a manner where we respect human rights and the environment, or else we are just copying the practices of the industries [that came] before,” replacing one looming disaster with others.

A report by the European Environmental Bureau cautions that a one-for-one swap-out of all European ICE cars with EVs today would be “completely misguided … [T]his is because their production also involves a considerable consumption of resources and [nonrenewable] energy, and their use is accompanied by an enormous demand for land and infrastructure.”

On the other hand, “It is very important to put the EV battery supply chain issues in context [by comparing the resources consumed by EVs] with the resources required for conventional vehicles,” Shruti Sarode, a climate change research fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, wrote to Mongabay in an email.

In making this direct comparison, it’s worth noting that ICE production and the “extraction and refinement of fossil fuels for internal combustion engines has, and continues to have, severe environmental, human, and geopolitical consequences,” she concludes.

Photo of electric vehicles charging.
Electric vehicles are considered the future of the automobile industry. Though beneficial in reducing climate impacts, their production comes along with sustainability challenges related to the materials required to construct them. Photo by (Joenomias) Menno de Jong (Pixabay).

Bieker agrees, pointing out how ICE vehicles are implicated in automotive air pollution, which research shows contributes to hundreds of thousands of premature deaths annually. “There’s a lot of focus on the negative social implications of mining for [EV] battery materials, while nobody talks about the same applications for petroleum,” he says. Bieker notes that there’s still time to improve on these issues as the EV market develops, so “we do not have to repeat the same mistakes that we did for fossil fuels.”

Beyond these basic differences, ICEs and EVs share similarities, including resources such as steel and aluminum, which have their own carbon and wider environmental footprints. Efforts are afoot to decarbonize these sectors too, but recent research suggests that the increasing demand for vehicles—in part linked to the pursuit of lighter EVs—is likely to quadruple automotive demand for aluminum by 2050.

And that soaring aluminum production is problematic, because making all that new aluminum for new cars could generate huge emissions that outstrip the carbon cuts achieved by EVs, according to a co-author of the recent study, Romain Billy, a researcher at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

“The point of the research is not to say electric vehicles or aluminum are bad,” Billy says, but to emphasize the need for a major “shift” by aluminum producers, car manufacturers, recyclers, and others in the automotive supply chain, to avoid transferring emissions from the old technology to the next, and to not create a battery recycling bottleneck.

“We need to be more strategic in thinking about what kind of car we want in the future, how we produce and recycle them,” he says.

Photo of a power plant emitting smoke.
The EV supply chain, if not well planned, could merely shift carbon emissions from tailpipes to power plant smokestacks. Experts emphasize that EVs are not “zero-emissions vehicles” as often claimed, given the carbon locked up in their production and in the electricity grids that power them. Photo by Patrick Pekal (Flickr).

The future of travel is circular

Experts agree EVs are no panacea, with both EVs and ICEs responsible for different environmental and social harms along their supply chains. They also agree that the auto industry can’t address those problems alone, due to the panoply of minerals and materials involved in car construction. A holistic approach is needed, bringing together multiple sectors, industries, and experts from around the globe.

If humanity is to drastically cut emissions, then the road signs are clear: The future of transportation is electric. But if EV carbon reductions are to cut deep and come fairly fast, then more than the top three EV markets of China, the EU, and the US need to be engaged in the transition. A strategy is needed to involve the world’s emerging economies, especially in the Global South, in a more rapid, sustainable EV rollout.

“If we want to really make a difference, we need to make sure that electric vehicle [tactical] support, [sustainability] policies, and infrastructure are also expanding into other places such as Africa and South America, where they are almost nonexistent,” says Paltsev.

Distributing EV technology equitably is only part of the challenge. The world’s nations will also need to address myriad sustainable production issues and environmental regulations as we transition from ICE to EV supply chains.

“We need to realize that climate change is a big problem, but it’s only one of the problems,” says Paltsev. “We need to make sure that the world is resolving the other issues related to sustainability.”

The hope is that the circular economy model can offer a road map to decarbonizing the automotive industry, while reducing other environmental impacts linked to material demand, greatly improving the prospects for electric vehicles as they increase their presence across the globe. This topic is covered in the follow-up to this article.

This article first appeared on Mongabay and was originally written by Sean Mowbray, a Mongabay contributor. It has been republished here under the Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-ND 4.0) Creative Commons license.


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