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SustainableWhy EVs are no silver bullet to climate change

It was my third-ever track day event, and I was looking to get my petrol head fix: fast cars zooming past me and the scent of racing fuel in the air. Only this time I realized that while the cars were fast, the loud sounds and petrol were absent.  And that was because it was a track day for electric cars. Among the super-electric-vehicles lined up: Teslas, Audi E-trons, Porsche Taycans and the most subtle...
Issa SalemNovember 7, 202119 min
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E-tron EVE-tron/Photo by Issa Salem

It was my third-ever track day event, and I was looking to get my petrol head fix: fast cars zooming past me and the scent of racing fuel in the air. Only this time I realized that while the cars were fast, the loud sounds and petrol were absent. 

And that was because it was a track day for electric cars.

Among the super-electric-vehicles lined up: Teslas, Audi E-trons, Porsche Taycans and the most subtle in the bunch, a Renault Zoe. Influencers were snapping photos, the models were signing autographs and the 760 horsepower Taycan Turbo S was sprinting from 0 to 100 in less than 3 seconds around the racetrack. The scene had me wondering: are these cars and their manufacturers really dedicated to mitigating climate change, or are they just a new, “sexier”, more appealing vehicle for people to buy? 

A single EV vehicle emits unquestionably less “tailpipe” emissions — the emissions directly produced by running it — than an internal combustion engine (ICE). Yet, this isn’t enough to determine their environmental edge. The lifetime carbon emissions, which are related to materials sourcing and manufacturing, must be considered. 

ICE vehicles win this round, with the average gasoline-powered car accounting for 5.5 million grams of carbon emissions before reaching the first customer. The average electric car accounts for 8.1 million grams.

And that’s because while fossil fuels are absent from running an EV, they aren’t in the production of a key component — their batteries.

EVs use lithium-ion batteries, which involve an energy intensive production that involves the mining of lithium and cobalt. 

These batteries are also charged on power coming from an electric grid, which often run on fossil fuels. Particularly in the UAE, electricity is sourced from gas power plants. There are plans to make a 100 percent transition into nuclear, solar, and other renewables, however, this is still years away.

Although some countries, like Norway, are already generating all their electricity from hydro sources, more experts are agreeing that trying to significantly reduce a carbon footprint through switching to EVs won’t work.

“Producing electric vehicles leads to significantly more emissions than producing petrol cars,” explains Florian Knobloch, a fellow at the Cambridge Centre for Environment, Energy and Natural Resource Governance. “Depending on the country of production, that’s between 30 percent to 40 percent extra in production emissions, which is mostly from the battery production.”

For EV manufacturers to truly become sustainable, these emissions must be offset. That means more research must be conducted into improving battery technology and making them less reliant on scarce raw materials. Electricity grids also must be decarbonized, implementing renewable energy sources like solar and hydropower — a renewable source of energy that uses the natural flow of water to generate electricity — as opposed to gas and coal.

“It’s no silver bullet for climate change mitigation,” says Knobloch. “Ideally, you also try to reduce the number of cars massively, and try to push things such as public transport. Getting people away from individual car transport is as important.” 

There are currently about 1.2 billion fuel-powered cars on the road globally, which is expected to increase to between 1.8 billion and 2 billion. In contrast, there are only 10 million electric vehicles. 

Manufacturers must produce a sizeable number of materials to meet demand, making the emissions “break-even point“ of EVs even more distant into the future.

In the United States, a new 54-kilowatt-hour Tesla Model 3 must be driven 21,700 kilometers before it becomes cleaner than a petrol Toyota Corolla that has been driven 280,000 kilometers over its lifetime, and achieved an average fuel economy of 8.6 liters per 100 kilometers, according to Reuters.

This break-even point for the Tesla will be more distant in a location like the UAE, where the main source of electricity comes from natural gas.

Zeina Alhashimi, an Abu Dhabi-based chemical engineer and sustainability specialist explains this further.

“The national grid mix in the UAE is currently 13 percent nuclear, 2 percent solar and about 85 percent gas,” Alhashimi explains. “It’s supposed to improve in 2030 by becoming 37 percent nuclear, 13 percent solar and 50 percent gas.” 

And it’s cost-effectiveness, not sustainability, that often make EVs an attractive choice for consumers.

Anas Kiblawi, the product manager at YallaMotor, UAE’s automotive website for used and new car research, explains the different costs to consider when purchasing an EV.

“We have to consider the up front investment and lifetime expenses. All EVs in the market now are too expensive, which is why I believe leasing options should be offered to attract more customers, especially since there is a lack of knowledge on the resale value of these cars. But the next five to 10 years of ownership prove EVs to be a more economic option, due to the fewer service charges.”

Ibrahim al Hashemi, a Dubai-based Emirati who owns a Tesla Model 3 Performance, also believes that EV’s running costs are far less than ICE cars.

“EVs are definitely a better choice, because there is almost no service,” Al Hashemi said. “Just tires, brakes and suspension. I’ve driven my car 20,000 kms and still haven’t had to service it. It doesn’t need petrol either. Just electricity, which is significantly cheaper.

Mohammed Shamsi, a 23-year-old Emirati government employee based in Dubai, saved Dh60,000 in a year owning his 2018 Tesla Model S.

“I used to spend Dh2,000 per month on petrol. Now I pay less than Dh200 for my electricity bill to charge my Tesla — and I charge every day,” Shamsi says.

Sustainability wasn’t top-of-mind for either of Mohammed or Zeina, and she believes it shouldn’t be.

“EVs aren’t a solution to climate change,” she explains. “They are being marketed as more sustainable than ICE cars to attract more customers.”

Swapping your petrol car for an electric one isn’t a panacea against climate change. We should be switching away from personal cars, period.

“The most sustainable means of transportation is public,” adds Zeina. “We need to reduce the amount of transportation vehicles and make greener spaces for nature to prosper.”

Electric vehicles are also progressively becoming cheaper to make, as they require far fewer moving parts. They require 30 per cent fewer hours to build.

This has increased profit and growth for EV manufacturers — Tesla’s market capitalisation reached US$1 trillion in October 2021.

High lithium-ion battery prices are keeping EVs more expensive to make — and buy — than gasoline counterparts. However, automakers like GM, which is planning to invest $27 billion in developing EVs, recognize that the extra cost of manufacturing battery electric cars versus their fossil fuel equivalents will soon diminish. According to research from investment bank UBS, that will drop to US$1,900 per car by next year and disappear completely by 2024.

Without a sustainability edge, cost-effectiveness, profitability and survival are motives for building EVs, not the environment. Manufacturers who try to hang on to solely ICE sales beyond this point risk falling behind EV-producing rivals.

And yet, they aren’t abandoning ICE vehicles.

GM will continue to spend money developing gasoline-powered vehicles and plans to keep building them for a decade, even if its most ambitious emission goals are met, according to the company’s vice president in charge of EVs, Ken Morris.

And the Japanese automaker, Toyota, believes that non-electric cars are crucial to their lineup. 

The company’s director, Shigeki Terashi, says it is “too early to concentrate on one option”. So expect to see a number of options beyond EVs for the next 30 years, including gas-electric hybrids and hydrogen fuel cell cars like the Toyota Mirai.

As automakers can benefit from EVs’ higher profit margins and sell them for the same price as ICE cars, if not more – vehicles like the Taycan and Teslas have banked off their allure too – this profit can then be used to make more carbon-emitting ICE cars.

Some may disagree with this line of thinking, in lieu of stricter regulations proposed by the likes of the EU, which announced a ban on sales of ICE vehicles by 2035. 

However regions like Africa, where 600 million people don’t have adequate access to electricity and water, will be a niche for ICE vehicles. People there will be dependent on them well past 2050.

The caveat of EVs is that they won’t make manufacturers, or the world, more sustainable, but only propose sustainability as an arguable selling point consumers buy into from only “looking at one piece of the pie”, says Zeina.

“The green washing and false advertising that these cars are more environmentally friendly illustrates how unaware consumers are,” she says. “They consider their direct footprint from driving the car yet forget the process to produce the car, generate the electricity to charge the car or the disposal options after the end of consumption.”

So, can EVs ever become sustainable? The short answer is yes, but “manufacturers need to invest more into R&D to make the whole manufacturing process, from production to running the cars, greener”, says Kiblawi.

They should start by finding a greener successor to lithium-ion. Zinc-ion offers some promising results, proving to be greener, cheaper, safer, and far long-lasting. Automakers are also pouring money in solid-state batteries, a technology considered to be a giant leap, offering a superior configuration that can potentially deliver faster charging times and enhanced safety by eliminating the flammable electrolyte solution used in lithium-ion batteries. Toyota is pursuing in-house development of solid-state battery cells and although they need more time to develop the technology for fully electric cars, in the meantime the company has implemented scaled versions in their hybrid models. Several manufacturers have also invested in solid-state battery startups to help them perfect the technology and make it ready for mass production, including Ford, BMW and Volkswagen, whose battery production lead Frank Blome referred to the technology as “the game changer”.

Countries like the UAE and the US must also make renewable energy the bulk of their national grid mix and extend aid in the form of basic electricity infrastructure to the Global South.

And still this isn’t enough. Even if electricity grids consisted of 100 percent renewable energy, greenhouse gases would still be emitted from producing solar panels and wind turbines. EVs becoming more attainable through being cheaper and more convenient to own won’t help either. More cars will be on the streets and impacting the environment, whether they are EVs or ICE cars.

Remember that Hashemi has a Tesla, mainly for the cheaper service charges. And Shamsi? With the Dh60,000 savings he earned running an EV, bought himself a classic 90’s Nissan GTR 32 as his second car – a high-performer renowned for its ICE.

A silver bullet for climate mitigating transportation isn’t more less-polluting cars on the road, but public transportation, backed by renewable energy sources that aid sustainable battery production.

Issa Salem

Issa handles multimedia at livehealthy.ae and got involved in fitness and healthy living after graduating high school. The sedentary lifestyle and junk food diet of his teen years had taken a toll on his wellbeing. Now, he makes sure to put his health first. Issa earned his bachelor’s in marketing and has since found his passion in media and arts.

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