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Proposing Cradle-to-Grave Evaluations for All Vehicles

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Dear Greta Letter #5 Proposing Cradle-to-Grave Evaluations for All Vehicles

why maintaining a gas-guzzler may cause less harm than buying a new e-vehicle
By Katie Singer

Dear Greta,

You know how manufacturers promote electric vehicles (EVs) because they have "zero-emissions?" I wonder if this is really true.

Evaluations of any vehicle's ecological impacts usually don't reach from cradle to grave. They focus on the car's energy use and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions while it operates.[1] Most evaluations do not include embodied energy or emissionswhat's used and emitted during manufacturing. They do not count GHGs or toxins emitted while extracting and smelting ores, producing the vehicle's electronics, lubricants, brake fluid, solvents, body and tires. Evaluations do not count what is emitted while designing, forming, cutting and bending metals and plastics"and transporting materials between stations. They don't count miners' or assembly workers hazards. They don't count the ecological and public health impacts of vehicle maintenance, repair, disposal or recycling.

If we determine a car's environmental impacts by looking exclusively at its operational driving time, are we fooling ourselves?

How electric vehicles are different

Most electric vehicles power the motor by a battery that recharges by plugging into a source of electricity for several hours. Because EVs do not emit GHGs at the tailpipe (actually, they have no tailpipe), they're called "emissions-free"even though the source of the electricity used to recharge them may not be, and manufacturing them involves a variety of emissions.
Hybrids can drive short distances on battery-powered electricity, then switch to gas fuel for longer trips.

I found just one study that compares the energy used and GHGs emitted during manufacturing gas-powered and electric vehicles. It demonstrates that a battery-powered EV emits 30,000 pounds of carbon-dioxide before it arrives at a dealership. During manufacturing, a gas-powered vehicle emits 14,000 pounds.[2]

While the EV will likely make up this carbon debt within a few years of driving, I still could not call an EV "emissions free."

Mining and smelting

After a vehicle's design, ores and petroleum are extracted for the body, batteries, computers and motor.[3] In 2019, scientists from UK's Natural History Museum reported that "replacing all UK-based vehicles with electric vehicles"would take 207,900 tonnes cobalt, 264,600 tonnes of lithium carbonate, at least 7,200 tonnes of neodymium and dysprosium, and 2,362,500 tonnes of copper."[4]

Extracting ores endangers miners. Child-miners have been maimed and buried alive while mining for cobalt (used in EV batteries).[5] While manufacturers aim to replace cobalt with magnesium chloride (road salt), like any new technology, it should receive appropriately thorough evaluation before it's used.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, mining for coltan (also used for batteries) has led to more murders than any other single event since WWII.[6]

No metal comes out of the Earth in usable form. Metal must be "reduced" from the ore. Smelting cobalt requires approximately 7000-8000 kWh of electricity for every ton of metal produced. Copper (for motors, batteries and computers) requires 9000 kWh.[7] For every kilogram of copper mined, at least 21 kilograms of waste are generated.[8]

Some EV motors' and speakers' magnets are made from neodymium and dysprosium. Production of these rare earths generates fluorine, waste gas containing dust, hydrofluoric acid, sulfur dioxide, sulfuric acid, acidic waste water and radioactive waste residue. According to the Chinese Society of Rare Earths, "All the rare-earth enterprises in (China's) Baotou region produce approximately ten million tons of wastewater every year." Most of it is "discharged without being treated, which contaminates potable water for daily living, the surrounding water environment and irrigated farmlands."

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Katie Singer writes about nature and technology in Letters to Greta. She spoke about the Internet's footprint in 2018, at the United Nations' Forum on Science, Technology & Innovation, and, in 2019, on a panel with the climatologist Dr. (more...)
 

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