How Green are Electric Vehicles?

Environment Magazine

No very, when you consider the source of their power and their hazardous components, reports Jaskiran Singh

The prospects of the electric vehicles’ (EV) market look very rosy right now. Mumbai-based investment-bank Avendus estimates that India’s EV market could be valued at Rs. 50,000 crores by 2025. And why shouldn’t it? The perils of using oil-based fuels are pretty well known by now.

Emissions of carbon, sulfur, and nitrous oxides, and acid rain are all by-products of oil-burning that cause respiratory illnesses. A recent Lancet study on the Global Burden of Disease said that air pollution is one of the top causes of deaths in India.

“You have got to be responsible,” says Shreyasi Sharma, a former NITI Aayog intern whose family was planning to buy an electric vehicle. “Our decision towards a possible shift to EVs was prompted by awareness about vehicular pollution,” she adds.

Rita Nahata, an environmental activist concurs saying, “I started using electric vehicles the day they were introduced.” She drives a Mahindra Reva.

However, the environmental benefits of switching to electric vehicles may not be so straightforward. Before we charge our cars and go about our merry ways, we need to examine the source of our car’s power. We need to look at how the electricity we use to charge our cars is being produced.

Currently, more than 55% of India’s electricity is produced by burning coal. BP Energy Outlook 2019 estimated that India’s dependence on coal will only reduce by about 8% to about 48% in 2040. This still means that the maximum chunk of India’s electrical output would be based on coal. Now add an increased number of electric vehicles to the demand for power.

A study conducted by Radboud University, Netherlands, claimed that while using electric cars would lead to an overall reduction of carbon emissions, the same is not advisable for countries like India. The reason is that India’s dependence on coal for electricity generation could make the switch counterproductive.

“It is not actually very green,” admits Nahata. One has to take into account the electricity it runs on, and the lithium-ion batteries on which they are run is also an issue, she adds. “(But) we don’t have any other option, right? Because you have to replace the carbon fuels and what do you replace them with?” she asks.

Amit Kumar Mishra, assistant professor at School of Environmental Studies, JNU says if you replace fossil fuel-based vehicles with electric ones, at the very least you are reducing the total pollution level in urban areas.

“In metropolitan cities like Delhi, Kolkata, and Chennai, you would see a short-term reduction in pollution. But you will not see any (long-term) benefits in terms of the larger problem of climate change,” he says. “When you say climate change (and then look at) emissions of carbon dioxide, they are more or less the same whether you are using an electric vehicle or petrol vehicle or other fossil fuel-based vehicle,” he adds.

Air quality in India’s cities will certainly improve but the at the expense of that in coal mining and power-generating areas that are disproportionately concentrated in states like Jharkhand and Bihar.

Nahata says that while comparing an electric car with an internal combustion car, it is not the greenest option, but a greener option, and definitely not a zero-carbon option. “You cannot claim that once you have an electric vehicle, the job is done,” she says.

For Shreyasi Sharma, a student, buying an electric vehicle is still too expensive. Her family now looks at other alternatives. Taking public transport is one way she thinks she can contribute to tackling the problem of air pollution in India. 


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