With the rise of businesses aiming for net zero there is a focus on how best to cut carbon emissions, to slow down the impact of the climate emergency. Many businesses will focus on their Scope 1 fleet of vehicles by electrifying these over the coming years, alongside encouraging their supply chains to do the same, under Scope 3, to give the world a chance.
Recently COVID-19 has reduced, and near enough ceased, travel and drastically increased virtual meetings, which has hugely benefited the environment on a global scale, demonstrating the art of the possible when we cut emissions.
The rise of electric vehicles
As we head back to the ‘new normal’, which I hope is a much more sustainable one, businesses should be looking to make those Scope 1 changes immediately. But before jumping in we should take a moment to look to the future.
In the past, products were developed that had short term benefits, but the long-term effects and what happens to those products at end of life weren’t considered. Some extreme examples include Asbestos, PCBs, and CFCs, all of which were created for a positive, immediate term purpose yet have devastating impacts at end of life. Due to short termism and our insatiable demand, products need to have circularity and recyclability injected into their design.
According to International Energy Agency, in 2019 Electric cars accounted for 2.6% of global car sales and about 1% of global car stock. In 2010 there were circa 17,000 electric cars on the world’s roads and there are now 7.2 million. We expect there to be 23 million by the end of 2030.
Whilst this is positive news for carbon emissions, which is backed by manufacturers such as Tesla and Arrival, creating electric lorries and vans for brands such as UPS, Royal Mail and recently Uber, there are some fundamental questions on whether the manufacture and disposal of electric vehicle (EV) batteries is environmentally sound.
Manufacture and disposal of EV batteries – the challenges
The United Nations report that reserves of raw materials for EV batteries are highly concentrated in a few countries. Nearly 50% of world cobalt reserves are in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), 58% of lithium reserves are in Chile, 80% of natural graphite reserves are in China, Brazil and Turkey, while 75% of manganese reserves are in Australia, Brazil, South Africa and Ukraine.
The challenge that this presents is not only the carbon intensity to mine these virgin raw materials, but the environmental and humanitarian regulations that aren’t as developed as they could be, especially in LEDCs. There is also the geopolitical situations that can occur, interrupting supply to meet the demand.
If there are issues with ongoing raw material supply, then collectively we should be looking at how we can create circularity within EV battery lifecycle, ensuring that there is appropriate compliance management from businesses to take responsibility for placing these on the market.
Legislation, reuse, and recycling – solutions
Within the UK, discussions are taking place around giga factories, which will enable the recycling of EV batteries, with some European manufacturers already running pilot plants. Reuse is another emerging viable option, with real life applications such as Nissan Leaf batteries being used in the Ajax arena; however, this will only delay the inevitable need to recycle them and extract the precious materials to close the loop.
Whilst manufacturers, all of which produce different EV batteries and as such require different dismantling and recycling techniques, are trying to tackle the problem, it is also good to see that the government has included EV batteries as a separate category in Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), with consultation due to take place next year. Only by collaborating and/or legal intervention will we drive a truly sustainable future. And the challenge remains, as there are EV batteries that need to be recycled right now.