The Real Cost Of A Sustainable Vehicle

By Savannah Marshall

In the US, transportation is responsible for about 25% of the country’s yearly greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.1  The large contribution of vehicular emissions to climate change has led to the popularization of tailpipe emission-free electric vehicles (EVs) in the past few decades. With the push to eventually transition the planet from gasoline vehicles to EVs, there are many questions that face the EV industry. Are we overlooking environmental downsides to battery production? How will we dispose of the quickly growing number of used batteries in the future? And are these vehicles actually more sustainable if your electricity ultimately comes from fossil fuels? It turns out the switch from gasoline vehicles to EVs is not simply about the tradeoff of lifetime GHG emissions; it also deals with deeper ethical issues related to the detriment felt by less privileged communities impacted by the EV industry.

Lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) can store more energy than batteries made of other metals. LIBs are used in many electronics such as phones, computers, tools, and, obviously, EVs. When analyzing the ‘sustainability’ of a battery, it is key to analyze (and quantify if possible) the benefits and downsides of every step involved in the lifetime of the battery. From mining of metals used to build a LIB all the way to its disposal, we need to consider the GHGs, waste products, and societal impacts to determine if EVs are better for the planet than gasoline vehicles. Life-cycle analysis has revealed that EVs spare the planet of most GHGs emitted from gasoline vehicles during the time they are being driven, but there are disadvantages associated with heavy metal mining for battery production, as well as with battery disposal after its 5-8 year lifespan.2 Unfortunately, detriments from metal mining and battery disposal are difficult to quantify as political and societal problems impact them greatly. Even more, the environmental harm of LIBs is not fully understood.

Figure 1. Fraction of specific metals and graphite in a generic EV battery module. (3)

LIBs used in EVs are composed of many metals, most of which need to be mined from the Earth. Lithium only makes up a small amount of EV batteries (Figure 1), but Earth’s lithium stores are limited and difficult to extract.1 Nearly 25% of the Earth’s lithium supply comes from the Atacama salt flat in Chile, a desert known for being one of the driest locations on Earth,4 which is key for purifying the lithium salt. Water usage is one of the largest costs in lithium extraction, with an estimated 500,000 gallons required per ton of lithium.5,6 Due to the extremely dry climate in the region, water has to be brought in or diverted away from indigenous Atacameño communities.4 The Chilean government has seldom enforced the indigenous people’s right to consent to mining on their land because of the economic benefits lithium mining brings the country.4 Water scarcity and increasingly erratic water supply in several Chilean lithium mining regions have led to forced migration and abandonment of ancestral settlements.1 Another problem with humans concentrating extraction of lithium salts in these regions is how easily lithium is released into the environment.1 The health of wildlife as far as 150 miles downstream of lithium mines are being negatively impacted.5

Cobalt is another metal required for EV batteries, and its mining may be even more problematic than lithium due to its lower quantity on Earth and higher percentage in batteries (Figure 1).5 It is estimated that in the next 8 years, EV production will use 30% of the world’s known cobalt reserves,7 most of which reside in the Congo, one of the most impoverished countries in the world.8 To meet cobalt demand, ‘artisanal mining’ has become widespread in the country.9 These independent, small-scale mines generally use child labor to extract cobalt by hand in poor working conditions and without protective equipment, leading to the deaths of numerous children.5 Pollution from cobalt mines has also been a growing problem. A study found that 53% of people, and a shocking 87% of children close to mining sites exceed the occupational limit for urinary cobalt excretion.9 It has become clear that industrial pollution from metal mining for EV battery production is disproportionately experienced by developing countries, yet wealthier countries are being touted for the environmental benefits of EVs.9

Mining is not the only aspect of the EV lifecycle associated with dramatic environmental consequences. Disposal of the EV batteries can have major ecological detriment when handeled inappropriately. The heavy metals in EV batteries are easily released into the environment, and do not break down in nature.1,2  If left in a landfill, LIBs can pollute the soil for an unknown number of surrounding miles for decades, if not centuries.2 In 2020, China had to dispose of 200,000 tons of batteries and admitted that the disposal of about half of all EV batteries in the country has been handled in a way that led to soil and water pollution.2 It is expected that the number of EV batteries disposed of in China will grow by over 40% per year.2

Fortunately, when an EV kicks the dust, there are several better options for what to do with it next. LIBs can be used in an EV until their output is reduced to about 80%; when it still has a lot of capacity left for other applications.10 Newer projects are being developed to use old EV batteries to store excess power generated from solar or windfarms, but this is still financially and logistically complicated.10 If we can simplify this process, research shows that LIBs decommissioned from EVs and repurposed for energy storage could meet the entire world’s energy storage needs as early as 2030.7

Recycling of LIB materials is also an option for used EV batteries. Over 95% of the components of a LIB can be extracted for recycling.6 However, there are not enough recycling facilities to meet current demand, and due to recycling being financially unappealing, only about 5% of EV batteries are currently being recycled.6 The European Union recently proposed new regulations which included target rates for battery collection and recovery of metals from recycling, along with mandatory minimum levels of recycled content in new batteries.11

Given the hindrances to responsible EV production and disposal, it should be welcome news to hear that lifetime GHG emissions from EVs are dramatically reduced compared to traditional gasoline vehicles. Figure 2 shows the estimated emissions associated with the average gasoline vehicle and EV in 2021 and expected in 2030 from four different regions. It is evident that EVs are responsible for dramatically less GHGs than gasoline vehicles, so without downplaying this huge benefit, I want to point out two key considerations with this figure. First, this estimate does not include GHGs associated with disposal, likely because disposal techniques are rapidly evolving. Second, the source of electricity charging an EV needs to be kept in mind. The GHGs associated with charging EVs is influenced by location because different power grids are fed by varying percentages of renewable and non-renewable energy sources.6 To better understand your car’s carbon footprint, I suggest several powerful tools: a power profiler showing the types of power feeding into your zip code, a GHG calculator for electric cars based on model and zip code, and a carbon counter to evaluate specific cars against climate targets.

Figure 2. Life-cycle GHG emissions of the average gasoline internal combustion engine vehicle (ICEV) and battery electric vehicle (BEV) in Europe, the United States, China, and India in 2021 and projected to be registered by 2030. (12)

While the transition from gasoline vehicles to EVs is pivotal to fighting climate change, the hidden issues of the industry are shocking. Governments and large corporations are overlooking pollution in an effort to promote GHG-saving vehicles. The communities suffering from pollution caused by mining and LIB disposal are not the ones claiming responsibility for reducing GHGs by increased EV adoption. Increasing support for repurposing and recycling LIBs, managing pollution from metal mining, and increasing renewable energy in our power grids are critical to reaping the maximum benefits of the promising technology of EVs while mitigating the social issues.


  • Electric vehicle production and disposal are causing deadly pollution.
  • Lack of tailpipe emissions in electric vehicles more than offsets emissions related to their production and charging.


1.         Agusdinata, D. B., Liu, W., Eakin, H. & Romero, H. Socio-environmental impacts of lithium mineral extraction: towards a research agenda. Environ. Res. Lett. 13, 123001 (2018).

2.         Ezrati, M. Batteries Are The Next Environmental Challenge. Forbes (2021).

3.         Brückner, L., Frank, J. & Elwert, T. Industrial Recycling of Lithium-Ion Batteries—A Critical Review of Metallurgical Process Routes. Metals 10, 1107 (2020).

4.         Riofrancos, T. The rush to ‘go electric’ comes with a hidden cost: destructive lithium mining. The Guardian (2021).

5.         Katwala, A. The spiralling environmental cost of our lithium battery addiction. Wired UK (2018).

6.         Sage, S. What’s the environmental impact of EV battery manufacturing? Digital Trends (2022).

7.         Rick, A. Greenpeace report troubleshoots China’s electric vehicles boom, highlights critical supply risks for lithium-ion batteries. Greenpeace East Asia (2020).

8.         Kelly, A. Human rights activist ‘forced to flee DRC’ over child cobalt mining lawsuit. The Guardian (2020).

9.         Banza, C. L. N. et al. High human exposure to cobalt and other metals in Katanga, a mining area of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Environ. Res. 109, 745–752 (2009).

10.       Lim, X. Millions of electric car batteries will retire in the next decade. What happens to them? | Environment | The Guardian. The Guardian (2021).

11.       Halleux, V. New EU regulatory framework for batteries. Eur. Parliam. Res. Serv. 10 (2022).

12.       Bieker, G. A global comparison of the life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions of combustion engine and electric passenger cars. International Council on Clean Transportation (2021).

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