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Separating fact from fiction – Why EVs are still much greener than gas guzzlers


Sasha Planting is a seasoned financial journalist and Associate Business Editor at Daily Maverick Business.

About a fortnight ago, I started to receive multiple versions of the same WhatsApp message from friends. It purported to discuss — at some length — the fallacy of how ‘green' electric vehicles (EVs) really are. It then segued into windmills and solar panels, and how bad they are. I’ll give you a taste:

“For those of you excited about electric cars and a green revolution, I want you to take a closer look at batteries and also windmills and solar panels.

“A typical EV battery weighs one thousand pounds, about the size of a travel trunk. It contains twenty-five pounds of lithium, sixty pounds of nickel, 44 pounds of manganese, 30 pounds of cobalt, 200 pounds of copper, and 400 pounds of aluminium, steel, and plastic. Inside are over 6,000 individual lithium-ion cells. To manufacture each EV auto battery, you must process 25,000 pounds of brine for the lithium, 30,000 pounds of ore for the cobalt, 5,000 pounds of ore for the nickel, and 25,000 pounds of the ore for copper. All told, you dig up 500,000 pounds of the earth’s crust for one battery.”

And so it went on.

As someone whose closet desire to own a night-sky blue Ford Mustang circa 1968 has morphed into a desire for an electric vehicle, I was naturally a little perturbed by the message that green is not as green as we believed. A little digging was in order.

It wasn’t long before I found the same message on Facebook, LinkedIn and even, the online voice for the budding metropolis of Kendallville, a town of 9,000 people in the US state of Indiana.

I’m sure if the clever people at DFRLabs did a bit of digital forensic investigating they would find a source — or sources — with an agenda. Given that the fossil fuel lobby has a significant vested interest in maintaining the status quo, the integrity of the information is up for debate.

None of the posts I was looking at seemed to credit the original author, and none of the people posting the article seemed to have any scientific credentials. After all, as Wired magazine puts it, the internet is full of “dark and terrible” sources of information. These range from toxic conspiracy theories, fake news, deep fakes (the altering of images using AI) and even the good old-fashioned internet and WhatsApp hoaxes.

You know the ones: pass this on to 17 friends for a happier life. Like so many pieces of misinformation, this particular article contains more than a kernel of truth. Lithium, cobalt and nickel are key minerals used to make the lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles.

And the skyrocketing demand for these minerals is driving the expansion of mining — and its destructive impacts on ecosystems and communities — in geographic “hotspots” throughout the world, including the ocean, with disproportionately negative impacts in the Global South.

This is according to research commissioned by Earthworks, an NPO from the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology, Sydney.

And yes, in a 100% renewable energy future, demand could reach 136% of the documented nickel deposits that are economically feasible to extract, 280% for lithium and 426% for cobalt. But context and balance are important. Remember the peak oil theory of the 1970s?

The question is what are we doing to mitigate the harmful impact of mining for those minerals?

And are emissions from wind and solar resources, including construction emissions, lower than emissions from fossil generation? Emissions from battery production are significant, but when EVs get their energy from clean sources like wind and solar their overall life cycle emissions’ consequences will be lower than fossil fuel-powered vehicles. And while there is no disputing that EV vehicle and battery production have issues to overcome, the internal combustion engine can’t in any way compare to the reduction in total impact on our planet in terms of the environment and pollution provided by electrification and EVs.

As the power grid moves towards cleaner sources like wind and solar, life-cycle emissions of electric vehicles improve. This brings me back to the WhatsApp message I received. How do we separate fact from fiction when the two often merge and overlap?

The problem with social media is that it is built for viral advertising (think of all those “likes” and clickbait articles) and has been manipulated to influence public opinion. So the velocity of social sharing, the power of recommendation algorithms, the scale of social networks and the accessibility of media manipulation technology mean we have an environment where pseudo-events, half-truths, and outright fabrications thrive.

It’s a scary old world we live in, but I’ll take it over any other period in history. Just be aware. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Eric Reurts says:

    I received and read the WhatsApp and note yout critique thereof. I read your article and aware of your comments I looked for references and evidence for facts you state, can’t find it. So I am left I terested but confused, who is right? My brother and son in law living in Europe have EV and a contract with a private lectricity supplier for ” Green electricity”. However, the same network supplying green energy supplies fossil fuel generated electricity . They thus can’t be sure that they get what they pay for.

  • Nick Tickner says:

    There’s not much substance in this article – no data to refute the WhatsApp alternative facts. Surely a bit of research could have uncovered the truth about how much energy is used to produce an average EV vs an average internal combustion car, and therefore how far you need to drive the former to make it greener than the latter.

  • Peter Atkins says:

    Hi, while I believe that life cycle analyses of internal combustion engine vehicles versus EVs will show that the carbon footprint of the EV is less than that of a typical IC vehicle, it takes more than an assertion to convince EV sceptics. So what is needed is references to peer-reviewed studies in reputable journals and even then the sceptics may choose to not believe.
    These LCAs can be quite complex, some of the variables to be considered include:
    – the size, shape and weight of the vehicles
    – the driving style during the tests
    – the source of the charging electricity (renewal, coal, gas, nuclear – this is usually expressed as the grid emission factor in kg CO2 equivalent per kWh)
    – maintenance during the life time of the vehicles (fuel, oil, spares, batteries, etc.)
    – and who funded the studies and what were their agendas?

    Lastly, CO2 emissions are only part of the story, there are other IC vehicle emissions that are seriously damaging to one’s health, especially in big cities (nitrous oxides, particulate carbon, sulphur dioxide, etc.) – think of some of the big cities suffering from vehicle smog.

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