How green is your e-car?

Sean writes*

 A big part of the allure of electric cars is the idea that the consumer is doing something good for the environment by opting to drive electric rather than a traditional fossil-fuel powered car. In the context of Tesla, the world’s most famous electric car the decision to go electric while remaining fashionable is enough for many to pat themselves on the back and not delve into the specifics of their new toy. I’m here to tell you that the purchase of your shiny new electric car might not be all it’s cracked up to be, if you’re an environmental warrior chances are you know this, the problem is the general population does not.

For an electric car the negative impact on the environment starts with the production of its lithium ion battery. If you’re buying a Tesla in the US chances are your battery will be produced at what’s known as the Gigafactory. According to the linked website “Tesla’s mission is to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy through increasingly affordable electric vehicles”. A Tesla’s battery chemistry is a mix of nickel, cobalt, and aluminium. This combination is touted for its energy density, however the mere quest to attain the elements required to make the battery i.e. cobalt mining in the DRC leads to negative environmental consequences.

By 2021 more than 10 million battery packs for cars will be able to be made due to increased production capacity. The bulk of production coming from countries who still heavily rely on the burning of coal for electricity: China, Thailand, Germany, and Poland. Some of Tesla’s batteries are produced in the aforementioned countries using dirty power and as a result carries greater negative externalities. Knowing where the electricity that fuels production comes from is crucial because it’s what much of the carbon footprint from the car comes down to. If you plan on being an environmentally conscious consumer of any electric vehicle make sure to do a bit of research as to where your model’s battery was made, even amongst one maker battery origin can vary.

On the road, your electric car is reducing your carbon footprint, but just like with your food the big question regarding the increase in consumption of electric cars will be “Where is your electric car coming from?” Failure to inquire about the production process behind the vehicle you choose will render the goal of its purchase somewhat meaningless and see the consumer become a victim of greenwashing.

Bottomline: How your E-Car was produced holds the answer to whether or not it helps the environment.


* Please help my Environmental Economics students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice :).

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

4 thoughts on “How green is your e-car?”

  1. This post brings the question of the considering the entire supply chain’s carbon, water and other footprints to the fore once again. It is dismaying to learn that not only Tesla car’s cost a ton to begin with (human’s are not that patient generally to look at long term investment/ROIs to begin with) but also the types of damaging effect the battery has on environment and so on.. Looking forward to an alternate to the lithium batteries in the e-vehicles of the future..

  2. Hey Sean,
    I really enjoyed reading your blogpost, I’ve always been very interested in what the actual environmental benefits of electric cars are.
    Reading your blogpost reminded me of a paper I had to read for the Environment and Development course. The paper is about the Jenvon’s paradox which basically entails that when a technological innovation is accompanied by increased efficiency in resource use, consumption will increase and thus the innovation, while in itself beneficial, actually has a negative impact on the environment. As this is very much in line with what you are saying I thought you might want to read it to further substantiate your claim. Hovardas, T. 2016. Two paradoxes with one stone: A critical reading of ecological modernisation. Here is the paper: Ecological Economics. [Online]. 130, pp.1-7. [Accessed 6 July 2018]. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2016.06.023

  3. I was really excited to learn that you chose to do this topic because I am a customer considering to buy an electric car myself in the near future. I was wondering if buying a Tesla will actually be environmental-friendly like they advertise themselves. So I guess reading this blog only gave me more questions that I want answers to. For example, let’s suppose that the battery that I ended up buying was produced in one of the countries that burn coal primarily (that you mentioned above). Is that one-time carbon footprint still better than buying a gasoline car in the long run? If so (or if not), to what extent? What is really the right choice to make in terms of choosing a car? I definitely have to do more research on this before I make a decision, and so I am looking forward to hearing more in the coming presentations.

  4. Sean,

    I’m curious about the counterfactual here. You’re advocating a lifecycle analysis for electric cars, but forgetting that the comparison is important. What does the lifecycle damages associated with a standard car look like? If I buy a Honda Accord, it is not obvious to me that the environmental considerations in its production are worse than that of a Tesla.
    Sure, batteries aren’t great to make, but the reduced complexity of the drivetrain presumably means tremendous energy savings in construction when we don’t have to mold driveshafts.

    Beyond that, if proponents of electric vehicles are correct and those vehicle’s simplicity drives longer lifespans with reduced maintenance — that lengthening of the lifecycle comes with its own benefits.

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