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Electric Vehicles vs. Fuel-Efficient Used Cars: Which really drives sustainability?

It finally happened.

Your 1995 Honda Civic hatchback broke down after 23 reliable years of week-long road trips, 8:00 AM traffic jams and carpools to the cottage.

It’s time to move on to a new car—but which model will contribute to a more sustainable future?

The obvious path to a low-carbon future seems to be via electric vehicles (EVs). EVs fall directly in line with the United Nation’s global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially SDG 7: Clean energy. But to truly understand the global consequences of each car, all aspects of sustainability need to be addressed, including SDG 16: Peace and justice.

Electric vehicles are projected to make up 54 per cent of new car sales by 2040. 

First, let’s look at the energy consequences of EVs and fuel-efficient used cars.

In the past decade, EVs have been accelerating in popularity and demand, and are projected to make up 54 per cent of new car sales by 2040. The United Kingdom and France have both announced they will ban the sale of diesel- and gasoline-fuelled cars by 2040, pivoting to EVs to curb the flow of carbon emissions. The private sector is also along for the ride, with companies like Ikea, Metro and Unilever joining up for the EV100 initiative, to encourage global business commitments to electric transport.

But what about fuel-efficient used cars?

In 2008, Wired wrote that a fuel-efficient used car may ultimately be better for the environment than a hybrid, due to the sheer amount of energy required to produce EVs and hybrid cars. A Toyota Prius, for example, wrote Wired, consumes the equivalent of 1,000 gallons of gasoline in its construction. For used cars, this “carbon debt” has already been paid.

Cobalt, aluminum, manganese, nickel and lithium have all been identified as critical raw material inputs for the EV market. Unfortunately, the places they are found are often mired in conflict.

And just last year, a European Union study found that it takes more energy to generate and transport electricity to the EVs then it does to extract and transport petrol to fuel-powered cars. (However, once in the car, an EV uses considerably less energy to move itself and its passengers—thereby being more energy-efficient overall). 

These arguments for and against electric vehicles and gasoline-powered used cars are fuelled by their respective implications for the global carbon footprint. But discussions of sustainability, as we are all becoming increasingly aware, are not limited to the environment.

Powering EVs requires rechargeable batteries, and rechargeable batteries require raw materials. Cobalt, aluminum, manganese, nickel and lithium have all been identified as critical raw material inputs for the EV market. Unfortunately, the places they are found are often mired in conflict.

Cobalt, for example, is linked to child labour and ongoing armed conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Demand for cobalt has surged in the last decade, due to its use in smartphones and electronics. About 50 per cent of global cobalt reserves are located in the DRC, and many cobalt mines are run by violent armed groups.

The increased extraction of nickel, another key mineral for EVs, also has links to violence; in Guatemala, military and private security personnel linked to mining companies have been accused of murder, violence and rape against local communities.

Beyond the DRC and Guatemala, protest and conflict associated with nickel, lithium, manganese and more have been recorded in Bolivia, India and the Philippines, to name only a few.

But that doesn’t mean we have reached the end of the road for the prospect of a conflict-free EV. 

In Guatemala, military and private security personnel linked to mining companies have been accused of murder, violence and rape against local communities.

Global regulations and guidance have been put in place by governments, the private sector and non-governmental organizations to address the contested extraction of strategic minerals, and many apply to those minerals and metals required for EVs. This week alone, more than 700 stakeholders are coming together for the OECD’s Forum on Responsible Mineral Supply Chains to discuss initiatives to enable conflict-free mineral production and sourcing. Included in the agenda for discussion: cobalt.

While the debate over EVs and fuel-efficient used cars is far from solved, one thing is certain: to decide how sustainable a car is, we need to look at its links to conflict and not just its carbon footprint.

What do you think? Tweet your opinions on EVs vs. fuel-efficient used cars to @IISD_Resilience with the hashtag #SustainableCars and we’ll post your thoughts below!