Ecological aspects of eMobility

26 MAY 2022 • 10 MIN READ

Piotr Majcher



ecological aspects of emobility

Until now, we’ve been majorly focusing on the technical aspects of eMobility, especially in terms of the software solutions. However, it would be hard not to mention the ecological aspects of eMobility at some point, especially given the Earth Day was just a while ago.

The impact of electric vehicles on the environment is one of the most fundamental and widely discussed topics related to eMobility. It’s also the primary inducement of the broadly-promoted mass adoption and various governmental undertakings in the pursuit of it.

Certainly, at this point it’s to no one’s surprise that internal combustion engines, which have been at the forefront of transportation, account for inordinate amounts of pollution emitted to air via exhausts. With current, heavily climate-oriented stances, it becomes clear to many policymakers that the time to take action has come in full might.

Transportation in numbers

In order to even start talking about the impact of EVs on the environment, it must be understood to what extent ICE (internal combustion engine) cars have previously affected it and why they are problematic.

The process of converting fossil fuels into energy through the burning of fuel in an engine causes several harmful byproducts, including carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and other greenhouse gases. These gases are released into the atmosphere, where they contribute to climate change, smog, and other environmental problems.

Despite a temporary decrease in 2020, caused by the pandemic and global travel downtime, the levels of greenhouse gases released by transportation account for (depending on the source and criteria) approximately 25-35% of all emissions, making the transport industry the biggest polluter, even given the record Covid19 decrease. According to Statista up to 41% of transport emissions come from passenger vehicles alone. That’s more than shipping and aviation combined (sic!).

With numbers of that scale, it’s pretty evident that the whole industry as it stands right now should (and most probably) will undergo massive changes towards more eco-friendly means.

Here is where the situation gets tricky. Namely, the entire eco-friendly aspect of electric vehicles (much like of any other type of vehicles actually) gets frequently questioned, over/under-estimated or even simply denied.  As a matter of fact, it would seem that each point of view has its rights and wrongs and the whole issue is not as straightforward as it may seem at first glance.

eMobility vs environment

There’s certainly quite a bit to unpack here. As it must be remembered - looking at the environmental impact goes beyond just zero-emission driving. It also includes manufacturing, batteries and the charging process.

In terms of the way an EV is manufactured - there isn’t much difference to what it looks like with an ICE car. It starts with raw materials that are then being appropriately processed, made into components, transported to warehouses and finally assembled into finished products.

However, it is estimated that manufacturing an EV emits more emissions than an ICE car. Why is that?  It is mostly due to the production of an electric vehicle battery.

Let’s take a closer look at the batteries. EVs are charged and powered with the use of lithium-ion batteries. Lithium (much like i.e. nickel or cobalt) falls under the spectrum of REE - rare earth elements. REE are being extracted from below the surface of the Earth. Mining of such, tends to be a rather polluting and difficult process. Amongst top lithium miners, some have already risen many controversies with their environment-damaging actions. This includes the Thacker Pass owned by Lithium Americas (Nevada, USA) or the infamous Nornickel mine in Russia, which had to pay a record 2.5billion fine for an Arctic oil spill.

In short, as much as it’s hard to find definite data and proven figures, the manufacturing of an EV seems in fact slightly less sustainable than it would be for an ICE car.

The good news around batteries is that currently a lot of work is being put into their energy-storage capacities. Second-hand batteries are being looked at as a potential new way to reduce the environmental impact of manufacturing. Reusable and recyclable, these scraps can be resold for use in technological innovations and become a great energy source or the fueling mechanism.

In terms of the utilization of an EV (aka driving) as much as it leaves no greenhouse gases, eMobility pessimists strike with THE question: There is no emission, but what about the electricity used to charge a car? It pollutes!

As much as it’s a valid point and equally valid question, the controversies and debates here seem to cancel out the even greater question: But what about the electricity needed for combustion engine cars, or more specifically what about oil extraction, doesn’t it need a tonne of electricity?

EVs vs ICE cars - the controversy

Yes, electric cars are not entirely clean. As much as driving itself emits no greenhouse gases, the electricity used to charge a car produces quite a bit of pollution (unless, of course, it comes from renewable sources like wind or water).

However, let’s briefly analyze what it looks like with ICE and EV cars. Here are some facts:

  • It has been previously established that the manufacturing process may be cleaner for ICEs.
  • It’s evident that driving an ICE vehicle itself releases quite a lot of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
  • Driving-based emissions are not the case for EVs
  • EVs pollute indirectly from electricity used to power them

If we stopped here, the match would be a tie-in game, as both options have their advantages and drawbacks. However, let’s look at the bigger picture - the electricity it takes to power an ICE car.

But combustion engines use fuel and not electricity!

Yes, however the electricity it takes to make fuel may shock some people.

Neither gasoline, nor petrol can be found naturally. They’re both produced from oil that is being extracted from the ground (usually rather deep). The oil comes from oil wells through the use of electricity-ran machines called pump jacks. For those who may wonder how many pump jacks there are in the world - data from 2021 saying that the market for them is estimated to grow from $3 billion to $5.2 billion in the span of just 10 years may put things into perspective.

Certainly most people know that apart from ground, the oil is also being extracted from under the sea by offshore drilling. It is said that there are currently close to 1500 offshore oil rigs around the world, these are being powered by generators using inordinate amounts of diesel per day.

The monthly electricity used to run oil-retrieving pump jacks and offshore rigs could most likely power an equivalent of a few million EVs. And that’s only on getting the oil out of the ground!

The oil is then being transported in pipelines powered by pump stations which again use a lot of electricity on a daily basis. In cases, where the pipeline is of no use, the oil would be shipped via massive ships which often use the cheapest fuel to cut the costs, polluting the air into oblivion. (not-so-fun fact: current length of oil and gas pipelines combined is estimated to be enough to circle the Earth even 30 times).  The pipelines and the ships lead to refineries - where oil is heated up to 420 degrees centigrade in the refinement process - making the refineries the biggest polluters in the areas they are - not only in terms of electricity used, but also in terms of greenhouse gases emissions.

With that in mind, if all the electricity used to extract oil, transport it and finally refine, was to be put just to charge electric vehicles, the chances are that millions and millions of people around the world could drive EVs with the same use of electricity it takes only to make fuel.

What’s the point if the electricity is being used anyway? The point here is that EVs do not produce further pollution while driving as they do not require burning of all this fuel which transforms into hazardous greenhouse gases.

Ecological aspects of eMobility - post scriptum

The ecological aspects of eMobility are definitely a whole different level of task to handle in terms of the amount of data, knowledge and sources it takes to understand the bigger picture. And yes, they are not entirely clean even when charged with renewable sources of electricity, as the battery production left an environmental footprint anyway. However, it must be taken into account that as of now, there are no means of transport that cause no harm whatsoever on each level: manufacturing, utilization, source of power or waste management.

Although, it doesn’t mean that electric vehicles are worse or even equal to ICE cars. In times where more money is being put into renewables than ever, the energy gets cleaner and cleaner, all the introduced eco-friendly solutions (including EVs) are there for a reason and keep on undergoing massive changes for the better. We get to witness a transformation that’s bound to reach a level where fuel-powered vehicles are to be labeled outdated and deemed no longer of use, even if humankind is yet to find a mean of transportation that’s clean from start to finish.