Electric Cars VS Internal Combustion Engine cars: everything you need to know

I honestly couldn’t make my mind up on this one, so I had to do a quick dive to see what’s what.

Note: said quick dive took a whole month of research, but I don’t want to talk about it 🙄

Anyway, what I found was interesting, read on!

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Before we go any further, keep in mind that I have nothing to gain from any of this, nor do I want to change your mind 🙂

It’s just food for thought.

Lingo:

ICE = Internal Combustion Engine (conventional cars)

EC = Electric Car

EV = Electric Vehicle

GHG = GreenHouse Gas

  • Intro

The first question I wondered about was financial cost, and the answer was unsurprisingly straight forward: ICE cars are way cheaper than ECs.

The second question I asked myself, quite obviously, was about environmental cost (or impact), ’cause money ain’t the sole reason we do what we do and consume what we consume.

Things like biodiversity, social justice, air quality, disease prevention and health are far more important than money, which makes this topic well worth the debate.

Here are 3 questions worth considering when discussing the environmental impact of car-making:

  • What are the emissions from production (materials and lining) for both types of vehicle ?
  • What are the GHG emissions to be expected from both types of vehicle ? 
  • What are the end of life/end of cycle GHG emissions for both types of vehicles ? 

Before we get any further, there was a study by Yale circa 2019 that concluded that emissions for both types of cars are similar and very small to be worth looking further into.

They changed their stance in 2021 when they found that Electric Vehicles provide lower carbon emissions “through additional channels”.

Subsequently, Jarod Cory Kelly, principal energy systems analyst at Argonne National Lab, said making EVs generates more carbon than combustion engine cars, mainly due to the extraction and processing of minerals in EV batteries and the production of power cells.

  • Electric VS Internal Combustion Engine cars: emissions

A dozen studies show that conventional vehicle production emissions range between 2 to 17 metric tons of GHG (10 metric tons being the most common average I found)

They also show that a typical, medium-sized, conventional family car will create around 24 tons of CO2 during its life cycle.

The same studies indicate that average EC production emissions sit at around 10 metric tons per car as well, without the battery.

They also show that a typical EV will create around 18 tons of CO2 during its life cycle.

For EVs, 46% of their total carbon footprint is generated at the factory, before they’ve traveled a single mile.

For instance, and because of battery production, this whitepaper claims that we emit 15 to 70% more GHG to produce electric cars.

  • Battery size matters

Now, there’s also a huge difference when it comes to battery size: a Nissan leaf battery (and car) will only cause 15% more emissions to produce than a classic combustion engine (conventional car), whereas a Tesla battery could cost up to 70% more, according to Net Zero Watch.

  • In numbers

ICE cars produce 10 tons of CO2 to make, and emit 5.2 metric tons of CO2 per year (on the road).

ECs without the battery also produce 10 tons to make, but only emit 2.2 metric tons of CO2 per year.

Now, to make a 30 kWh lithium battery (Nissan Leaf), companies emit from 1 to 5 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. To produce a 100 kWh (Tesla) battery, that number ranges between 6 and 17 tons of GHG.

If we base our reasoning on these numbers only, it takes roughly 2 years on the road before a small electric car starts producing less carbon than an ICE car.

If you change the battery in the meantime, you’re looking at around 3.2 years to offset your carbon emissions.

That only applies when talking about small ECs.

For a Tesla, however, you’re looking at roughly 5.53 years of driving before you break-even.

Note: estimates as to how big that carbon gap is when a car is first sold and where the “break-even” point comes can vary widely, depending on the assumptions, driving style, distances covered and the country in question.

For instance, if said electric car is being driven in a country like Norway, which generates almost all its electricity from renewable hydropower, the break-even point would come much MUCH sooner.

University of Liege researcher Damien Ernst said in 2019 that the typical EV would have to travel nearly 700,000 km before it emitted less CO2 than a comparable gasoline vehicle. He later revised his figures down.

Now, he estimates the break-even point could be between 67,000 km and 151,000 km.

  • Lithium, cobalt, nickel and aluminum

Lithium makes up for 5 to 7% of an EC battery, which isn’t as much as most people think.

Cobalt and nickel make up a bigger chunk, up to 20% for cobalt and up to 10% for nickel.

  • Lithium mining

One of the main problems with Lithium mining is that it’s a very water intensive process, which makes it environmentally consequential.

Lithium extraction uses a lot of water and is the cause for droughts in regions where it’s extracted.

For instance, Lithium mining used 65% of water supply of Salar de Atacama in Chile. Many studies confirmed these astronomical numbers.

“Lithium mining requires large volumes of groundwater to pump out brines from drilled wells. Mining activities in the Atacama are estimated to consume 65 percent of the area’s water, and they have in some cases contaminated streams and caused significant fall in groundwater”

More on that here.

The main difference between pollution caused by Lithium mining and CO2 pollution is that we, and our planet, can capture CO2 through forests, soils and oceans. The same can’t be said about the loss of water, a scarce element on earth.

FYI, the ocean is the planet’s largest carbon sink. It absorbs excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and stores it. “Approximately 40% of the carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere by fossil fuel burning since the dawn of the industrial era has been taken up by the ocean“, per Oceanographic Magazine.

Besides water consumption and pollution, evaporation and contamination, Lithium mining is also a cause for high GHG emissions, which comes as no surprise.

Large ECs with long range batteries (which you’d want in a car) could be responsible for up to 17 metric tons of CO2 emissions, so while governments may want to subsidize EC and EV manufacturers, I’m still unsure of the effectivity of this tactic for the environment.

Download this Fact Sheet (PDF) if you want to learn about Lithium, Lithium mining, regulations and laws.

  • How about cobalt mining?

The race for cobalt risks turning it from miracle metal to deadly chemical‘, per The Guardian.

Cobalt-producing nations like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zambia and Cuba are discovering that cobalt mining is trickier than they first thought.

Lung disease and heart failure have been linked to high levels of this element, while the mines that produce it are blamed for devastated landscapes, water pollution, contaminated crops and a loss of soil fertility.

Scientists are also investigating a possible link to cancer.

The environmental impact extends through the life-cycle of the product from refineries, battery plants, consumers goods manufacturers, electronic recycling facilities and waste dumps.

Among the most affected are workers at poorly-regulated mines, as always.

Concerns in the Congo, which produces more than 60% of the world’s cobalt and where the mineral is often mined in tandem with nickel, copper or silver, are rising when it comes to child mining and child labor.

For instance, Apple and Google were recently named in a US lawsuit over Congolese child cobalt mining deaths.

Obviously, ECs and EVs aren’t the only ones to blame, as most electronic devices use cobalt as well.

  • Nickel mining

Did you know that Nickel (Ni) is the most expensive material in EVs after Cobalt ?

Did you also know that Indonesia accounts for the largest supply of Nickel in the world ? As if Palm Oil wasn’t destructive enough for the island country.. (Indonesia counts for more than half of global palm oil supply btw)

Note: On April 22nd 2022, Indonesia announced plans to ban exports of Palm Oil (Yay!)

Back to the Nickel (no Nickelback jokes, please ^^)

Reports by IDTechEx state that the demand for nickel from EV batteries is expected to increase ten-fold by 2030 compared to 2019.

One of the main problems surrounding nickel mining is that ores normally contain only a very small percentage of useful Ni, resulting in a large amount of waste material.

“Recently it has been announced that two nickel mining companies in Indonesia are planning to use deep-sea disposal for the raw material waste into the Coral Triangle as they ramp up operations,” the report states.

On the other side of the spectrum, back in 2017, the Philippines government suspended nearly half of its nickel mines citing environmental concerns.

So Nickel, like Cobalt and Lithium, is also highly destructive to the environment in ways that we can’t easily bypass, unlike CO2 emissions..

  • Recycling of batteries

The recycling of batteries is another issue, an important one, especially in the water scarcity debate.

In the EU, as few as 5% of lithium-ion batteries are recycled. This has an environmental cost.

Not only do the batteries carry a risk of giving off toxic gases if damaged, but core ingredients such as lithium and cobalt are finite and extraction can lead to water pollution and depletion, among other environmental consequences.

Francisco Carranza, former managing director at Nissan and current VP of sales and marketing at Automotive Cells Company, says the fundamental problem is that while the cost of fully recycling a battery is falling toward €1 per kilo, the value of the raw materials that can be reclaimed is only a third of that.

And what doesn’t make money often doesn’t make sense, business-wise.

That said, Nissan, like many other car manufacturers, has partnered with power management firm Eaton for its car batteries to be re-used for home energy storage, rather than be recycled.

Perhaps there’s reason to be optimistic, after all.

For instance, the Johan Cruyff Arena, Ajax Amsterdam’s home field, is home to the equivalent of 148 used Nissan Leaf batteries, which found a second life in this stadium.

The JCA is one of the most sustainable spots in Europe. Solar panels, super-green energy storage and onsite vehicle-to-grid charging can all be found in this beautiful piece of engineering.

The arena is a prime example of sustainability at scale. It’s currently the largest energy storage bank in a commercial building in Europe.

  • Where do electric vehicles get their electricity ?

Let’s put all of this to the side and discuss something that’s equally as important as battery components: energy.

Where do EVs get their energy from ?

It turns out that many regions in the world are still getting their electricity from COAL-powered plants.

In fact, 23% of electricity comes from coal-fired plants in the United States alone. Studies estimate that number to be around 22.9 percent in Europe.

How much of Europe’s energy comes from fossil fuels?

For the structure of gross available energy in 2020, 68.4 % of all energy in the EU was produced from coal, crude oil and natural gas.

Not so green huh ?

  • The verdict ?

I don’t have one.

But one thing is for sure, I’ll definitely stick to my beautiful 2005 Corolla for now.

Besides, I will always prefer higher CO2 emissions to water pollution, leading to water shortages and scarcity. Child labor and the massive environmental impacts mentioned above are also reasons why EVs ain’t my thing, now more than ever.

That said, by no means am I saying conventional cars don’t pollute. All I’m saying is, there’s no need to push for newer technologies just for the sake of newness. That’s the whole premise around consumerism, which is the core ideology of capitalism.

Also, and this is extremely important, our oceans, with around 38,000 gigatons of carbon, contain 16 times as much carbon as the terrestrial biosphere.

On the other hand, our CO2 emissions today sit at around 36.4 gigatons of CO2.

Our oceans are one of the most promising places to sequester carbon. They currently take up a third of the carbon emitted by human activity, roughly 2.9 billion metric tons each year, according to new estimates.

Now, let me ask you this: can you imagine how much CO2 we would intrap if our oceans were healthy ?

Imagine a world where industrial fishing is banned for good?

People often say that we need to “Save The Earth”. I personally don’t think the Earth needs saving, I think the Earth will be just fine without us. Instead, we need to save ourselves by abolishing all unnecessary exploitations.

The earth is a magical place, a gift that’ll keep on giving, but we need to start looking at things differently.

The solution to the current environmental crisis doesn’t necessarily lie in changing the way we travel.

We have to start looking at all industries, and go through them one by one.

The impacts of certain industries are often dismissed, it’s dangerous.

To save ourselves, we need to abolish unnecessary exploitations and consumerism. Simultaneously, we need to keep pushing research towards truly cleaner options.

Our beautiful planet can easily deal with GHG emissions, but it can hardly “regenerate” polluted water, water being the scarcest element on earth.

Last but not least, if you thought Russia controlling 5% of oil exports was a threat to global stability, wait until you find out who controls 90% of the critical rare earth elements needed for EVs and solar panels.

  • In sum

ICE Cars are here to stay and that’s okay, for now.

Perhaps newer technologies will come into place and replace the old ones, but let’s give credit where credit is due.

Cars are a blessing.

The demonization of ICE cars has risen sharply, it’s baffling and quite unwarranted. People who can’t afford EVs (or don’t want to switch) have been heavily criticized by mainstream media, so this piece is essentially here to establish some sort of balance.

It’s important to remember that cars, just like railroads, boats and airplanes have played a huge part in how humanity has developed in the past century.

Cars make our lives safer and more comfortable. They allow us to access places and resources that are viable and necessary to evolve as a species.

The debate around EVs vs ICE cars is a matter of choosing the lesser of two necessary evils, it’s sterile and borderline absurd.

As things stand economically, socially and historically, there is no clear winner. Besides, as I mentioned before, I reckon we’re barking at the wrong tree in the sustainability debate.

How about we tackle unnecessary industries like fast fashion, industrial fishing, factory farming, food retail first ?

Worth considering.

Let me know what you think in the comments below and tune in to the pod for similar conversations.

Watch this if you want to know more about the innovation of the engine.

  • Studies worth exploring: 

Yale: link 1

Reuters: link 2

The Wall Street journal: link 3

The NY Times: link 4

US Environmental Protection Agency: link 5

Cordis EU Research results: link 6