Are electric vehicles really the answer to the climate crisis?

As the world prepares to embrace electric vehicles (EVs), many are voicing their criticism…

Photo credit: Shutterstock / Scharfsinn

Over a decade has passed since electric vehicles (EVs) became mainstream, with the rise of specialized automakers such as Tesla Motors. With the push for EVs growing stronger due to their environmental benefits, traditional automakers, too, began to launch their hybrid cars and EVs one after another.

Today, you will be hard-pressed to find a major automaker which does not offer a fully-electric car. Ford, Nissan, Volkswagen… almost every notable car manufacturer makes them!

Even those automakers which did not embrace EVs too enthusiastically in the beginning are now changing tack. General Motor’s macho truck brand, GMC, and the classic British SUV brand, Land Rover, have scheduled the launch of their first all-electric models in 2024.

At the same time, a growing list of countries are phasing out cars powered with internal combustion engines. Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, and the UK will ban the sales of all new cars running on fossil fuels in 2030. Japan, Italy, China, and the US will follow suit in 2035. India, Turkey, and Mexico will do the same by 2040.

When something like this is happening in both China and the US in the same year, you can be sure that times are changing. Internal combustion engines are on their way out, after a century and a half of giving rides to billions of people and making the world a more accessible place for everyone.

This is, of course, due to environmental considerations. Carbon emissions of EVs are significantly smaller than petrol or diesel cars, allegedly even after taking into account the carbon emitted during electricity generation, according to the European Energy Agency.

However, some have pointed certain out flaws in the plan, arguing that an enforced electrification of cars may not be as green as it seems. Most recently, the acclaimed British comedian, Rowan Atkinson, voiced his doubts: “Electric motoring is, in theory, a subject about which I should know something. My first university degree was in electrical and electronic engineering,” Atkinson told The Guardian in June 2023, adding that despite his love for EVs and being an early adopter, he increasingly feels misled by the industry.

The main problem pointed out by critics such as Atkinson is simple enough to understand; although EVs have no exhaust pipes and no visible emissions, the power plants that generate the electricity which charges our EVs have massive smokestacks and quite visible emissions released into the atmosphere.

Then there is the issue of the battery. Almost all EVs are powered by lithium-ion batteries, whose manufacturing is not as eco-friendly as we would want to believe. The supply chain of lithium is fraught with complexity and involves massive—and quite messy—open-pit mining.

EV batteries are incredibly heavy, as well, which means a significant percentage of energy stored in them must be spent to carry the battery itself! The battery of a Tesla Model S weighs 544kg, while in some other EVs the figure may be as high as 700kg. To put things in perspective, this is almost the entire weight of a Fiat Panda!

These shortcomings do not mean that EVs are doomed to failure. EVs are still our best bet in the long run. However, to make the whole enterprise eco-friendly in the true sense of the word we must ramp up the contribution of green energy to our national electricity grids. There is no point in driving an EV, unless the electricity that powers it is also green.

Improvements in battery technology is yet another necessity. The industry has already increased the lifespan of EV batteries from under five years to around ten years. And the weight of the battery module has been reduced to as little as 290kg in certain models such as Nissan Leaf Gen 2.

Solid-state batteries are yet another cutting-edge technology just around the corner, which are lighter than the industry standard lithium-ion batteries and can be charged faster, thus making EVs a more practical choice.

In the larger scheme of things, the widespread adoption of EVs in a way that truly benefits the environment will depend more on investment in the greenification of electricity generation and advancements in battery technology and less on setting deadlines for phasing out internal combustion engines.