The environmental performance of battery-powered electric vehicles was questioned at the Future of Technology seminar at the Advanced Propulsion Centre. So, what does ‘sustainable vehicle’ really mean?
Following a series of discussions by leading industry and environmental specialists, the event chair warned that electric vehicles will only deliver the environmental benefits that are expected of them if industry and government plan their introduction based on a much wider understanding of their true whole-life impact. Without this understanding, local air quality improvements could be at the expense of environmental damage elsewhere.
The need to ‘see off’ internal combustion engines
The seminar began with environmentalist Jonathon Porritt CBE establishing the extraordinary threat that accelerating climate change now poses: “This makes the transition from the internal combustion engine to alternative transportation technologies (hybrid, all-electric or hydrogen) all the more pressing, and that in turn demands significant breakthroughs in battery and storage technologies.”
Andy Eastlake, Managing Director of the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership, followed with warning that a focus on tailpipe emissions alone, will blind us to other areas of environmental impact.
“50% of the current lifetime CO2 impact of an electric vehicle can be created during its manufacture,” he told delegates. A major challenge, he believes, is identifying and developing the factors that governments use to influence the types of vehicles on our roads.
“Reducing taxation to incentivise vehicles with low tailpipe emissions is necessary to stimulate the market but does not yet enable us to influence the whole life emissions choices. Also, currently, fuel duty tax revenues can help fund research into sustainable technologies, so new methods of taxing mobility will be needed,” Eastlake continued. “To be effective, cleverly managed regulation and taxation should be simple in its objectives but sophisticated in its understanding of the issues. Only then is it able to protect and finance our long-term future.”
The big question
The big question, however, is the recyclability of traction batteries, the manufacture of which brings a significant environmental impact even before they are fitted to a vehicle. David Greenwood, Professor of Advanced Propulsion Systems at The University of Warwick, told the delegates that electric vehicle batteries typically cost between £5,000 and £20,000 with a large proportion of that value embedded in the materials. He then showed a simple series of estimates that suggest that by 2040 there could be around £1bn of battery materials to be recovered from end-of-life vehicles each year “if we can develop designs and processes that make it possible.”
Greenwood emphasised that with alternatives to lithium ion chemistry at least eight years away, the quest to achieve a closed supply chain is an urgent one and must begin now, with battery pack designers making recyclability a critical objective.
Three urgent EV environmental challenges
Summarising the key conclusions of the APC seminar, Event Chair and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers’ Head of Engineering Policy, Dr Jenifer Baxter, was clear that we need to ask some serious questions about the sustainability of electric vehicles. “First, we must consider the whole-life emissions of electric vehicles and not just the tailpipe emissions. Second, it is essential that we accelerate the development of techniques for recycling batteries. Third, there are non- emissions environmental impacts that also deserve consideration, such as the impact of mining some of the materials that are essential to today’s EV technologies.”