Understanding the Context
The rapid advances in technology continue bringing us ever so close to solving many environmental issues, especially regarding clean energy. However, many seem to forget that the context of a situation is just as important as the final executer, as in the last technical device to do a given task. The context of a situation should be heavily considered when determining the timing of a specific implementation. This post will look into an example of this, the electric car, and why it is important to consider all aspects of a situation.
The context of implementing electric cars is far more important than the fact that it has nearly zero direct emissions while in use. The electric car has many aspects that could affect the environment, mostly within the categories of manufacturing, maintenance, and usage. A briefing by The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) suggests that the manufacturing of electric vehicles, especially their batteries, contributes the most greenhouse gas emissions throughout their lifecycle. The other major contributor of greenhouse gas emissions comes from their fuel cycle, being emissions from the energy produced to power them. The context of these two situations is highly influential of whether these electric vehicles are truly worth replacing a conventional internal combustion engine vehicle.
The briefing from the ICCT suggests that about half of the emissions related to the manufacturing of batteries for electric vehicles comes from the electricity needed during production. The other half is from the energy needed during the extraction of materials. Although it is harder to control where these batteries are being manufactured, it is important to understand that this location could determine the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced from the manufacturing of these batteries. Some vehicle companies are trying to take things into their own hands by ensuring that their factories use only renewable energy, which would significantly reduce their environmental impact. The most common denominator for this environmental impact is the electric grid in the areas of the factories and the materials extraction sites.
The last and probably most important factor for consumers to consider when evaluating the context of electric cars is the electric grid of where it will be used. Powering electric cars requires electricity, and depending on the location, a hybrid vehicle may be more efficient if a large portion of the electricity production in that area comes from fossil fuels. Countries like Norway that gets 99% of its electricity from hydroelectric power could benefit greatly from using a large amount of electric vehicles. Other countries like the U.S. or Germany, depending on the specific location within these countries, may benefit more from hybrid vehicles as their electric grids are simply not ready.
Lastly, one must consider that batteries need to be replaced after a certain amount of time as their efficiency does wear out, and that the batteries contain highly toxic chemicals. Technology is being developed to widespread and efficiently recycle these batteries to extend their lifetime, reuse some materials, and as a result, reduce their environmental impact.
In conclusion, technological advances are making it significantly easy for us to reduce our environmental impacts, but the context of a situation will determine which technological implementation is most effective.
Written by Zein Tynon, Class of 2024.
Hall, Dale. Lutsey, Nic. “Effects of battery manufacturing on electric vehicle life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions”. (2018). The International Council on Clean Transportation. https://theicct.org/sites/default/files/publications/EV-life-cycle-GHG_ICCT-Briefing_09022018_vF.pdf