As the threat of climate change looms, drivers have turned to electric cars to reduce their carbon footprint. Charged at home, electric cars are an eco-friendly alternative to many gas guzzlers on the road today. Recently, car companies like Nissan and BMW have capitalized on this growing trend by developing their own electric vehicles. Although electric cars are undoubtedly more fuel efficient than their counterparts, the question remains: just how eco-friendly are electric vehicles?

Environmental Concerns of Electric Cars

A cobalt miner in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
A cobalt miner in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

While some auto companies claim to produce “zero emissions” vehicles, experts find this claim questionable. Electric cars must be regularly charged on the electrical grid, which for the most part relies on coal. In 2015, 60% of California’s electricity came from burning fossil fuels. Although the U.S has tried to clean up its electrical grid, coal still makes up 20% of the country’s power.

CarbonCounter, an interactive online tool, allows users to compare the environmental impacts of different vehicles. This tool considers emissions produced from manufacturing cars and creating fuel, how much gas traditional cars burn, and where the electricity powering electric vehicles comes from.

If electric cars use an electrical grid powered by a mix of fossil fuels and renewable energy, they’re more eco-friendly. This is because electric motors are more fuel efficient than traditional internal combustion engines. However, if an EV like the Chevrolet Bolt charges on a coal-heavy grid, it’s less eco-friendly than a Toyota Prius, which uses gasoline but needs a battery for extra mileage.  Therefore, CarbonCounter proves just how important it is to consider all factors at play when evaluating a car’s environmental impact.

The materials in electric car batteries pose another environmental concern. Though electric car batteries can be recycled, this process can use up large amounts of water and emit air pollutants. Furthermore, the batteries require mining rare elements such as cobalt, raising grave environmental and human rights concerns in Africa. Approximately 70% of the world’s cobalt originates from the Democratic Republic of Congo. In unregulated mines, workers—many of whom are children—extract the metal with only hand tools. The mining of lithium is also problematic, leading to deforestation, water shortages and toxic leaks.

Making Electric Cars More Eco-Friendly

Entrepreneur driving electric car on highway
Entrepreneur driving electric car on highway

As electric cars have risen in popularity, people have been working on solutions to lessen their negative environmental impact. One way to combat the dangers of lithium mining is sourcing locally. In Britain, researchers have worked on developing lithium carbonate from rocks found in Cornwall and Scotland. To avoid the environmental and ethical concerns involved in the mining of cobalt,  car companies have turned to alternative resources. Last year, Tesla announced they will be producing electric car batteries without cobalt. Instead, the company will use lithium-iron-phosphate batteries, a cheaper and far more eco-friendly alternative. 

To address the charging inefficiency of electric cars, China has instituted battery-swap shops where owners can exchange batteries quickly. With a rented battery, the swap idea offsets the high cost of electrical vehicles, encouraging more drivers to buy electric. Another way to mitigate the harmful environmental impact of electric vehicles is by switching to hydrogen cars. Powered by water vapor, hydrogen cars are much more eco-friendly than electric vehicles. While using hydrogen presents its own challenges, with these cars there’s hope that a greener future is within reach.

Is your electric car really green? Let us know where you obtain your energy source down in the comments.

This article originally published on GREY Journal.