Aligned with growing global interest to slow down climate change, countries have been increasingly adopting methods to lower global temperature. The recent COP26 agreement set the global agenda on tackling climate change within the next decade; countries involved in the agreement pledged to keep temperature rises within 1.5℃, among other environmental targets set out in the summit.
The importance of sustainable transport has been highlighted in the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The transport sector is responsible for approximately a quarter of energy-related global greenhouse gas emissions; this statistic becomes even more alarming when we consider how transport has largely been reliant on steadily-depleting fossil fuels, and how traffic is projected to increase in the following years. This has inspired countries to look at sustainable transport, with automakers jumping on the trend and increasing electric vehicle production.
Several countries such as Singapore, China and the United States are phasing out internal combustion engine vehicles and replacing them with electric vehicles. However, doubt has been cast over how environmentally friendly electric vehicles are.
Electric vehicles are regarded as the environmentally friendly alternative due to them running on electricity, resulting in lower tailpipe emissions in comparison to internal combustion engine vehicles. However, a closer look has to be paid to the life cycle environmental impact of electric vehicles.
It has been projected that the manufacturing of electric vehicles leaves a greater carbon footprint than that of internal combustion engine vehicles. In particular, manufacturing the lithium-ion batteries that electric vehicles run on requires extracting and refining rare earth metals such as lithium and cobalt. This process requires a lot of energy due to the high heat and sterile conditions involved, resulting in high amounts of greenhouse gas emissions.
The mining of cobalt also casts doubt over the “sustainable” nature of electric vehicles. 70% of global supply of cobalt comes from Congo, where safety procedures are often overlooked and sometimes involves child labour.
The disposal of the battery packs in electric vehicles also proves to be a concern regarding its sustainability. The current global rate of recycling such batteries is estimated to be 5%. When improperly disposed of, toxic metals from the batteries could leak into the environment, resulting in water and soil contamination.
As the electric vehicle market grows, attention has to be paid to creating a sustainable ecosystem that minimises the environmental harm of the production and disposal of the vehicles’ components.
There are some measures being set in place to ensure that the ecosystem is balanced. For instance, automakers are increasingly attempting to shift away from unethical and unsustainable supply chains, while Congo has established the new state-backed Enterprise Generale du Cobalt to ensure responsible mining standards. Automakers and governments alike are also looking to responsibly recycle battery packs by establishing e-waste recycling plants or finding second-life applications for electric vehicle batteries.
The move towards sustainable transport through electrification points to a larger problem in the sustainability effort; that “environmentally friendly” products have to be examined in terms of their entire lifecycle emissions to determine their impact on the environment, and that ecosystems need to be held to higher standards. Governments and producers alike have to work hand in hand to make a concentrated effort in ensuring the ecosystem is balanced.