Electric Vehicles (EVs) are hailed and promoted by governments and car manufacturers as the technology decarbonizes the transport sector. In India, transportation sector emits an estimated 261 tonnes of CO2, of which 94.5% is contributed by road transport. According to World Health Organization (WHO), among the 20 most polluted cities in the world, 14 are Indian cities. Moreover, the fuel prices have increased sharply since the last year and are predicted to increase further because of the Russian invasion on Ukraine.
All these reasons have made people to turn to electric vehicles as the government has provided incentives to people by introducing subsidies. Under section 80EEB, a total tax exemption of up Rs 1,50,000 can be availed when paying off the EV loan. This tax exemption is available for both 4-wheeler and 2-wheeler EV purchases. So, the future looks bright for EVs; but this future will not arrive without an environmental cost. The market for EVs, in the developed world has increased rapidly in not less than a decade.
The EV manufacturers market them as ‘clean and green’ technology that hides the dark side of EVs, which consists of embodied emissions, lithium, cobalt and many sustainability and ethical issues.
While EVs produce no direct exhaust pipe emissions, the production, distribution and disposal of EVs are highly poisonous. The production of an EV involves many of the same polluting processes as an Internal Combustion (IC) engine but the only difference is that it uses lithium-ion and cobalt batteries to power the shafts. The processes involved in making EV batteries is where the ‘green’ image of EVs starts to fall apart.
The lithium-ion battery supply chain stretches from Europe to Latin America and Africa. Over half of the earth’s lithium resources are found in the so-called Lithium Triangle which spans across Bolivia, Argentina and Chile. Lithium mines have an environmental impact through their destructive extraction processes. Landscapes are dug up and scarred, habitats can be destroyed, and chemical runoff can cause severe water pollution. Mining for lithium also consumes a tremendous amount of water, about 2000000 litres per tonne of lithium. This has caused water shortages in Chile, leaving them no enough water for daily-public use.
Cobalt is another key ingredient for the lithium-ion battery. Cobalt resources are concentrated in the Democratic Republic of Congo where numerous cases of human rights abuses have been filed in the country’s cobalt mines: unmitigated health risks from the working environment, child labor etc. Battery sustainability issues do not end there. At their end-of-life, the batteries mostly end up in in landfills. No effective disposal technique is adopted because it is currently cheaper to extract new raw materials for batteries than it is to reuse old batteries.
Putting things into perspective, EVs are much better for the environment compared to IC engines as the decarbonize transport sector, but we should be careful about their framing as a solution. So, EVs cannot be regarded as the ‘perfect’ replacement for fossil fuel-run engines in contrast to what they are advertised of being but awareness calls for the fact that the nature is letting people choose between bad and worse at this point of time in history.
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