The ecological footprint of a vehicle includes resource consumption and emissions from production, use and disposal of the vehicle as well as all its components, including the battery in the case of an e-car. Energy is used at all of these stages – in the form of electricity, for example. How this energy is produced will impact significantly on the footprint.
If we compare a petrol engine to an electric vehicle, we can see differences at every stage of the lifecycle. Due to the large battery, the production of an e-car certainly involves more energy consumption, so this means the adverse environmental impact is greater than in the case of a car with a petrol engine. The industry has understood this, too. Today, companies are increasingly going their own way to be more ecological and achieve a better footprint. Examples include the installation of photovoltaic systems directly on factories or the purchase of green electricity in order to reduce carbon intensity in production.
The carbon intensity of the electricity mix varies greatly from one country to another in Europe. It depends on the power plant where the electricity is produced – ranging from 23 grams/kWh in Norway, where electricity is generated almost exclusively using hydropower, to 100 grams/kWh in Switzerland and more than 1,000 grams/kWh in Poland, which generates its electricity almost exclusively by means of coal-fired power plants. The increase in electricity from renewable sources such as wind or solar will lead to a further reduction in the carbon intensity of electricity in the coming years – providing this is used to replace power generated by fossil-based power plants.
That’s not a question you can simply answer with a number. Various factors have a role to play here, and clearly the Fraunhofer Institute and Kassensturz are making different assumptions about them. As already mentioned, the production of an e-battery involves environmental pollution, i.e. carbon emissions are released that do not occur in connection with a petrol engine. Conversely, a petrol engine causes direct CO2 emissions when driving on the road, which an e-vehicle doesn’t. When running an e-car, the indirect CO2 emissions not caused by the vehicle itself depend on the power plant mix used to generate the battery power. And the situation here is very different if you compare Germany and Switzerland – and this is what accounts for the differing statements we are talking about. The Kassensturz figure is based on data compiled by the Paul Scherrer Institute. This reflects the situation in Switzerland, i.e. battery charging using the average Swiss electricity mix.
Lithium is on the European Union’s list of critical raw materials because of its key role in modern technologies. Worldwide, South America with its salt lakes and Australia are currently the primary producers of lithium. In the coming years, the strategy in Europe – and therefore in Switzerland, too – must be to set up efficient recycling processes so as to be able to keep this type of material in use for as long as possible.
Cobalt is also on this list of critical raw materials. Its main production area is the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it is extracted under very poor working conditions in some cases. This is why cobalt is one of the so-called conflict minerals. In this case, even more must be done to recycle the material as completely as possible and extend its lifecycle.
In the field of batteries, large sums of money are currently being invested worldwide in the development of new systems. In addition to a further increase in energy density per mass, important aspects here are durability and improved recyclability, as well as the price of a battery. Cobalt is one of the expensive materials used in batteries. So every effort is being made here to reduce the quantity further or to replace the raw material with less problematic materials such as nickel, manganese or aluminium.
The rare earths, or rather the rare earth metals, are a group of 17 metals in the periodic table – the so-called “third subgroup”, and the lanthanides. Many of these elements are needed for modern technologies, for example neodymium is required for the permanent magnets in electric motors. This makes them extremely important. Their deposits are located to a large extent in China, which is responsible for more than three quarters of the production of this and many other metals. This has led to these metals being classified as critical raw materials by the EU, for example. As such, society at large is called upon to ensure these materials are handled much more responsibly and deployed in such a way that they can remain in use for as long as possible or recycled as completely as possible.
E-vehicles give us the capacity to be mobile with less CO2 pollution per kilometre travelled, so the environmental impact is less than that of a petrol engine. We shouldn’t limit our focus to carbon intensity per kilometre, however. Issues such as the limited availability of critical raw materials require us as a society to ask ourselves much more broadly how much mobility we want to allow. This applies in two respects: we have to consider additional environmental aspects in addition to CO2, and we also have to include more than just mobility in this debate. After all, we ultimately only have one source available to us to cover all our activities – planet Earth.
So Mobility is strategically on the right track because it is implementing the above-mentioned bonus points offered by electrically powered mobility. At the same time, Mobility’s business model is part of the sharing economy, i.e. its approach is to share the use of resources.
Roland Hischier holds a doctorate in environmental science from the ETH and heads the research group for the further development of lifecycle assessment at Empa’s Department of Technology and Society in St. Gallen.
This department generates and imparts knowledge relating to the transition to a sustainable society, among other things by analysing new materials and technologies with regard to their ecological and social impact. For further information on the activities of this Empa department, see https://www.empa.ch/web/s506/overview