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EVs Deliver Lower Life Cycle Emissions, But Component Recycling Still Essential

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Electric vehicles produce a smaller lifetime environmental and climate burden than the internal combustion cars they replace, and the gains will become that much more significant once manufacturers begin recycling key EV components, according to an analysis published last week in Policy Options.

“There remains a considerable concern about the substantial environmental backpack, or burden, of manufacturing these vehicles,” write Pete Poovanna, Ryan Davis, and Charlotte Argue of the Fraser Basin Council in British Columbia. And indeed, “EVs’ enormous burden comes from the building of EV batteries, before the cars even hit the road.”

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However, “our comparison [2] of the lifetime impact of EVs and conventional gasoline vehicles (GVs) shows that EVs charged from clean sources in Canada can pay off this environmental burden within three years, whereas GVs continue to add GHGs to the atmosphere for as long as they are driven.”

The article looks at all the elements of a vehicle’s life cycle that factor into its environmental impact—from mining and processing, to manufacturing and assembly, to use, to recycling. “A lot of energy—much of it generated with fossil fuels—is needed to mine and transport the metals like lithium, cobalt, manganese, nickel, and graphite that go into an EV’s battery,” the authors note. “So EVs have a higher burden in the stages that lead up to putting them on the showroom floor, and a slightly greater impact than GVs in their end-of-life stage. But their emissions while in use are so much lower that, overall, they clearly provide the best way to decarbonize Canada’s transportation sector.

That’s particularly the case, they say, when Canada already produces 72% of its electricity from renewable sources including hydro.

EVs can consume twice as much primary energy during the manufacturing process as GVs, creating double the emissions,” they write. “However, over their years of driving (10,000 kilometres per year for 15 years), EVs such as the Nissan Leaf generate lower emissions: 99% lower in B.C., where the electricity comes from clean sources, and even in Alberta, where a significant amount of coal is used to power the electrical grid, 50% lower.

As EV sales grow, the next stage will be to develop recycling methods that “recover nearly all the construction materials, allowing us to displace raw material that would otherwise be mined,” Poovanna, Davis, and Argue write.

The accomplishment of this vision of a circular economy for EVs will require additional research and planning over the next decade,” they acknowledge. But “Nissan is already setting up a plant [3] to reuse and recycle used lithium-ion batteries from EVs. In B.C., Retriev Technology [4] recovers 75% of the weight of the lithium-ion cells, primarily the cobalt, nickel, and copper. Our analysis shows that to significantly reduce the end-of-life burden of EVs, recovery of all battery materials is essential; recycling facilities are sure to evolve to meet this benchmark.