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Are electric cars as sustainable as we believe them to be?

Climate change is a central issue and its severity has long instigated the search for effective solutions that will aid in reducing the level of carbon emissions (CO2) globally. The introduction of electric cars has been a key player in the creation of technological advances in these solutions. This alternative is being considered due to the significant impact cars have on the environment. In 2016 cars accounted for 60.7% for all CO2 emissions for transport in the EU. To further the move from the fossil-fuel based cars that contribute to this figure, electric cars have also featured in policy frameworks. So how do electric cars factor into decreasing this percentage and are they as resourceful as we believe them to be?

Image: Two electric cars charging: Wix Images.

Making a comeback

Electric cars are not a new invention but have been around since the early 19th century with the first models being built between 1830 and 1840. However, they were quickly abandoned due to the design and the uprising of the notable fossil-fuel powered vehicles. Now as the worlds focus turns to combatting the alarming climate crisis, electric cars have made a significant comeback to the market. This is not without reason as they do a great deal for the planet. Pure electric cars emit zero emissions which also aids in countering air pollution that is responsible for a multitude of health issues. In addition to this, while the initial cost of an electric vehicle may be higher than their competitors they are cost effective in the long term.

While they have gained significant popularity there are still debates on the potential harm that electric cars are also responsible for. The main issues that find the technology criticised is due to the source of energy needed to power the batteries.

A number of countries such as the United States, China and India still rely on the extraction and distribution of fossil fuels. While the car itself may emit zero emissions there is a high probability that many are still relying on fossil fuels in order to operate. Fossil fuels are formed from as a result of the decomposition of buried carbon-based organisms such as animals and plants. The final result of this decomposition are fuels made up of carbon and hydrogen. They can be found in different forms such as coal, natural gas and oil. The rigorous process of extracting the fossil fuels from the Earth's crust involves large amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) being released into the atmosphere. The CO2 becomes trapped in the atmosphere thus warming the Earth and causing global warming and our current climate crisis. Therefore, the use of electric cars is not done without contributing to the release of CO2. While it is certainly not as high as that of combustion engine cars it is still important to note this when assessing the sustainability of the electric vehicles as they begin to be considered as an eco-friendly alternative.

The Battery

Perhaps the most controversial part of the electric car is the most fundamental part; the battery. The batteries needed to power the car are made of rare Earth materials such as nickel, lithium and cobalt or graphite. Similar to fossil fuels, these materials are extracted from the Earth's surface through mining, releasing harmful gases into the atmosphere in the process. Another key aspect that calls the sustainability of the vehicles into question is the process of extraction itself, usually involving mining. From a human perspective, the conditions of working in mining has a significant impact on the health of those involved in this line of work. Miners are not only putting their immediate lives at risk as they are susceptible to cave-ins. They are also at risk of long-term impacts to their health due to exposure to various chemicals and materials such as mercury, coal dust and arsenic.

This is not to dispute the use of electric cars, as they still stand to present an option that is less harmful. However, it is crucial to examine what alternatives we are considering and how sustainable they are. Being mindful of how eco-friendly options may not be so kind to the lives of those that are involved in their production. Electric cars are predicted to becoming increasingly popular in the next decade as they become more accessible through subsidies. This prediction of popularity makes it all the more critical to open such conversations now.

We are keen to hear what you think about electric cars or other technological eco-friendly alternatives. Please let us know in the comments below!

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