A recent study by IIT Kanpur has found EVs to be more damaging for the environment than hybrid vehicles and conventional ICE vehicles.
Although this is a one-off research in India and the jury is still out on the extent to which EVs are harmful for the environment, it does prompt a re-look into the supposed utility and benefits of EVs – that is driving their uptake in the country helped on by adequate policy incentives – as well as their drawbacks.
At the very least, there is a need to discuss and outline why EVs could possibly be not-so-great from an environmental standpoint, at least for now in the Indian context.
What the IIT study says?
According to the IIT study drawing on a life cycle and total cost of ownership analysis, the manufacturing, use and scrapping of battery electric vehicles or BEVs causes 15-50 per cent more greenhouse gases than hybrid and conventional engine cars.
So, accounting for the manufacturing processes involved, the usage of batteries through their lifetime and their dismantling phases, EVs are responsible for more emissions than conventional and hybrid vehicles.
And among BEVs, hybrid and conventional vehicles, hybrid vehicles, that contain both ICE engine and a lithium battery-powered motor powertrain, are reckoned the most environment-friendly.
In terms of costs, the study estimates that the cost of buying, using and maintaining battery cars is 15-60 per cent higher per km as compared to hybrid and conventional cars.
In this backdrop, what are some of the downsides of using EVs and why they may not be the best of alternative mobility choices, for now?
First of all, an EV is as green as the grid it sources electricity from for charging and recharging.
In other words, EV can be beneficial for the environment only to the extent that it uses electricity from clean and non-renewable resources. And BEVs are fully powered by electricity as against the other types of EVs such as hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs).
So, in a country such as India where 75 per cent of electricity still comes from coal, promoting BEVs that are hundred per cent powered by electricity does raise questions.
Importantly, BEVs constitute two-thirds of all EVs sold in India. Essentially, there is a need for cleaner electric grids in the country before we opt for a full-fledged EV mobility system.
Sourcing of material for battery systems harmful to ecosystem
Second, there is no dispute over the emissions and the ecological challenges that arise during the sourcing of raw materials and inputs for EV batteries.
In particular, the mining of key raw materials such as cobalt, nickel and lithium is fraught with high ecological risks.
There have often been reports of river systems in China, Asia's lithium capital, as well as in South America being polluted from lithium-related chemical leaks. Similarly cobalt extraction is playing havoc with human lives and ecosystem in Congo.
Although India has discovered lithium deposits in Jammu and Kashmir recently, the mining of this rare mineral can have enormous adverse socio-environmental implications, especially being located in a relatively unstable Himalayan mountain range as opposed to say, the lithium mines in the Pilbara and Yilgarn regions in Australia, a geologically more stable region.
It has been estimated that for every ton of lithium that is extracted, 15 tonnes of carbon dioxide are released.
Similarly, lithium production is also highly water-intensive and production of one tonne of lithium requires nearly 2 million litres, again a very high cost. And if, instead of increasing indigenous capacity, we stick to imports, we have to remember that China, a major global supplier is not exactly a reliable import partner, geo-politically-speaking.
Higher emissions from production of EVs than ICE vehicles
Third, by most accounts, the production stage of EVS produce more emissions than the production stage of ICEs.
In another whole life carbon emissions analysis of EVs and ICEs, it has been found that as much as 46 per cent of BEV carbon emissions come from the production process as against 26 per cent for an ICE vehicle.
So, in the initial factory stage of its life cycle, manufacturing of EVs are more environmentally-damaging than making of ICE vehicles.
Another study has concluded that NOx, SO2, and PM emissions from EV manufacturing are 1.5–2.5 times greater than those from ICE production over the entire production process (including raw material supply).
Higher non-exhaust emissions from EVs vis-a-vis ICEs
Fourth, it has also been increasingly observed that the EVs' non-exhaust emissions, namely emissions from wearing down of tires, brakes and road surfaces, are even higher than those of conventional ICEs.
This is especially true of heavier-weight EVs. And EVs are necessarily heavier than ICE equivalents due to the battery systems.
In fact, heavier-weight EVs emit 3-8 per cent more PM2.5 than ICE vehicles. And the serious respiratory health implications of PM 2.5, especially for urban populations, are widely known.
Then accounting for the role of tires in their contributing to emissions, another study has brought out that tire-wear particulate emissions are 1,850 times greater than tailpipe emissions.
Again, due to the heavier weight of EVs, half a metric ton of battery weight can cause tire emissions 400 times greater than real-world tailpipe emissions, ceteris paribus. Going a step further, another research shows that non-exhaust particle emissions from the equivalent EVs are likely to be more than all particle emissions from ICE passenger cars, including exhaust particle emissions.
End-of-life disposal and recycling a challenge
Fifth, on account of battery components, the end-of-life scrapping, disposal and recycling of EVs is a greater challenge than ICE vehicles.
Once electric cars batteries fall below 70-80 per cent capacity after about a decade of use, their capacity to power a car comes down substantially.
Although India is at an early stage of EV adoption, within a few years, India is likely to be saddled with a large volume of abandoned batteries made with environmentally-sensitive minerals such as lithium and others which if not disposed of or recycled properly, could spell disaster for the local populations and the ecosystem.
With the government's recent announcement on cutting down on the demand subsidy for EVs under FAME II, the indications are that a slower and more cautious policy approach to EV adoption is likely to prevail in the coming months and years.
The constraints related to charging infrastructure, development of an indigenous value chain, and the prohibitive costs of transition and persisting range anxiety on the part of the consumers are possibly making the government take a step back.
Simultaneously, the government would be well advised to give sufficient policy leeway to other cleaner alternative fuels such as auto LPG, a mobility fuel with enormous green as well as cost credentials.
It is an option being exercised by some of the most developed countries in the world today.
(Suyash Gupta is the Director General of Indian Auto LPG Coalition)