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Sustainability of Electric Vehicle batteries

Asian economies account for 75% of the world's carbon dioxide emissions, which is approximately 795 million tonnes. Out of this, India emits about 291 million tonnes, constituting 36% of the total emissions from Asia. In India, over the past decade, CO2 emissions from the transportation sector alone have tripled. In response to this, the electric vehicle (EV) market has witnessed significant growth. With increasing fuel costs and the promise of a more environmentally-friendly alternative to traditional internal combustion engines, EVs have gained popularity in recent times. According to the Economic Survey of 2023, India's domestic electric vehicle market is projected to achieve a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 49% between 2022 and 2030, with 10 million units sold annually by 2030. 

A 2022 study by McKinsey & Company unveiled that sustainability played a pivotal role in influencing the public's decision to buy electric vehicles in India. When considering EV cars, sustainability ranked among the top five criteria for purchasers, and for EV two-wheelers, it ranked among the top three. Given the increasing importance consumers place on the sustainability aspect of EVs, it is imperative to evaluate whether EVs truly uphold sustainability standards. Although EVs have zero tailpipe  emissions, the carbon footprint impact caused by battery production and recycling is still up for discussion. 

Manufacturing of EV batteries 

According to a study, electric vehicles (EVs) have a lower overall lifecycle emissions of 19 tonnes of CO2 compared to internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, which emit 24 tonnes of CO2. However, the production phase contributes to 46% of the total carbon emissions for EVs, equating to 8.8 tonnes of CO2 emissions. In contrast, for ICE vehicles, the production phase accounts for only 23% of emissions, which amounts to 5.6 tonnes of CO2. Consequently, the production of a single electric car results in approximately 4 tonnes of additional CO2 emissions compared to an ICE vehicle. To offset this, the car must be actively used for a minimum of 8 years, assuming it is charged using 100% renewable energy. Producing vehicle chassis is a standard step in both EV and internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle manufacturing, with comparable emissions for both. However, the manufacture of lithium-ion batteries, specific to EVs, leads to higher emissions, resulting in increased overall emissions during the production of EVs compared to ICE vehicles.

The production of batteries for EVs relies on raw materials such as lithium, cobalt, graphite, manganese, nickel which are primarily found in very few developing nations. Mining these materials demands substantial energy and impacts the environment. Over 50% of the world's lithium reserves are found in Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile. Lithium mining is particularly water-intensive, with estimates suggesting nearly 2 million litres of water is required to produce one ton of lithium. Mining activities in Chile’s Salar de Atacama, including lithium mining, consumed up to 65% of the groundwater, leading to groundwater depletion and soil degradation. This significantly affects indigenous quinoa farmers and llama herders, who now have to compete with miners for water in one of the world's driest regions.

Mining sites for cobalt may contain sulphur minerals that, upon contact with air and water, can generate sulfuric acid, leading to acid mine drainage. This phenomenon is when the sulphuric acid, laden with heavy metals, drains into aquatic habitats, altering the pH of the water. This negatively impacts aquatic life. Moreover, there are troubling concerns about child labour in this sector. According to a report by the United Nations Conference on Trade And Development (UNCTAD), approximately 40,000 children engage in hazardous work conditions within artisanal cobalt mines, which account for 20% of the cobalt sourced from central African nations.

The manufacture of the battery demands extremely high temperatures, ranging from 800 to 1,000 degrees Celsius, which are typically achieved using fossil fuels, resulting in CO2 emissions. The carbon footprint during manufacture of EV batteries can vary depending on factors like the materials used, their origin, and the energy source. Presently, China leads in lithium-ion battery production, manufacturing 77% of the global supply, where coal (one of the most polluting fossil fuels) is the primary energy source. 

Operational phase of EVs 

In developing nations such as India, where a significant portion of energy is derived from fossil fuels, the source of electricity used to charge EV batteries directly influences the vehicle's eco-friendliness. As of May 2023, 56% of India's power is sourced from fossil fuels, according to the Ministry of Power. To achieve emission-free transportation, renewable sources of power for charging batteries are essential. However, even these renewable sources are not entirely net-zero. While electricity generated from sources like solar, wind, and hydro power does not directly produce emissions, the manufacturing, construction, and eventual decommissioning of the facilities and equipment, such as wind turbines and photovoltaic panels, as well as the construction of dams for hydro power, contribute to carbon emissions and have other impacts such as displacing poor, marginalised communities. Additionally, renewable sources like nuclear energy generate radioactive waste that remains hazardous to human health and the environment for thousands of years. While increasing the use of renewable energy sources is crucial, it is equally important to explore methods of reducing the associated emissions in order to truly achieve a net-zero future.

End of life of EV batteries

Upon reaching the end of their operational life, EV batteries have the potential to release hazardous substances that lead to soil and water contamination if improperly discarded. Therefore, it is crucial to meticulously plan for their proper disposal. Even at their end of life, these batteries still retain approximately 70% of their original energy capacity. Although this capacity falls short of the energy required for powering EVs reliant on battery capacity for range, these batteries can still find purpose in other applications before eventually requiring recycling. The number of companies researching the reuse of EV batteries for secondary storage applications is on the rise, which is expected to extend their lifespan by up to an additional 10 years. Notably, in India, Audi has collaborated with Nunam technology to repurpose its batteries for use in e-rickshaws. This is possible because for vehicles with lower weight, range and power requirements, the second life batteries are extremely promising. Similarly, Mercedes-Benz Energy has partnered with Lohum to utilise lithium ion batteries (LIBs) in stationary and non-automotive mobility applications.

At the end of their second life, EV batteries must be recycled. This process recovers the rare metals which can be reused in battery production, reducing the need for energy-intensive mining of virgin materials and ultimately reducing their carbon footprint. Presently, two commercially viable recycling methods, known as pyrometallurgy and hydrometallurgy, are predominantly employed. Each method has its own merits and drawbacks. While pyrometallurgy is highly efficient, the high temperatures it requires leads to increased energy consumption. On the other hand, hydrometallurgy does not need high temperatures, but it involves the use of strong acids, which may result in acid fumes and heavy metal contamination.

A third method, known as direct recycling, proves to be more energy and cost efficient compared to the other two methods. The materials retrieved through pyrometallurgy and hydrometallurgy may not be directly compatible for reuse in new batteries. In contrast, direct recycling yields battery materials that can be readily utilised in new batteries, thereby reducing both material and energy expenses. However, direct recycling is contingent on the condition of the LIB batteries, and it involves various techniques depending on battery type and composition. Therefore, manual disassembly is necessary, leading to increased labour costs. Steps like standardising batteries need to be implemented, to establish direct recycling as a commercially viable alternative as it is environmentally less detrimental than the other two methods.

While recycling EV batteries  is a good start towards establishing a circular economy, it is imperative to address the carbon footprint during the process. As the EV industry continues to grow, India will face a surge in used EV batteries in the coming years. Therefore, it is crucial to control the carbon footprint during the recycling process and standardise recycling methods before it becomes an urgent concern in the future.

EV battery management 

The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MOEFCC) recently introduced the Battery Waste Management Rules, 2022 to ensure the environmentally responsible handling of spent batteries, including EV batteries. The rules introduced Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), holding battery producers accountable for the collection and recycling/refurbishment of discarded batteries. Additionally, they prohibit incineration and disposal of batteries in landfills. While these rules hold the potential to create a circular economy, there are critical gaps that need to be addressed for more efficient and effective recycling.

The rules do not touch upon standardisation of EV batteries, encompassing size, battery chemistry, tracking, and labelling. Standardising EV batteries is crucial for enhancing their reuse and recycling efficiency. Presently, the sizes and chemistries of EV batteries vary based on the vehicle they are designed for. Different automotive companies use diverse methods to assemble battery packs, making future dismantling and recycling more challenging. Therefore, standardising sizes and chemistries and designing batteries for effective pre-processing and recycling is essential. Labelling batteries is also vital for determining the necessary processing before recycling, based on their chemistry. Each battery should be assigned a unique identification number for efficient tracking. Additionally, the rules should specify regulatory standards to assess if batteries are suitable for a second life.

Addressing the role and safety of the informal sector is another critical aspect of EV battery recycling in India. The majority of waste management in the country is handled informally, often lacking proper education on the safe handling and treatment of EV batteries. This poses risks to both individuals involved and the environment. Integrating the informal sector into the e-waste value chain by linking them with authorised recyclers could be a solution. Companies like Exigo in India have established partnerships with informal sector collectors to collect batteries in an environmentally-friendly manner and transport them to designated recycling centres.

Furthermore, continuous research and development are essential in any sector for improvement. In the case of EVs, there is a pressing need for R&D in alternative battery chemistries and recycling methods. Developing battery chemistries that utilise more readily available metals can reduce the reliance on environmentally hazardous rare metal mining and help combat child labour. Similarly, exploring alternative recycling methods that are both economically viable and environmentally friendly is crucial in reducing the carbon footprint of EV batteries.


The push for EVs in India aligns with the global climate agenda set by the Paris Agreement, aiming to reduce carbon emissions and combat global warming. Electric vehicles also play a pivotal role in achieving several of the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly SDG 7 (Affordable and Clean Energy) and SDG 13 (Climate Action). They achieve this by mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and reducing air pollution, which are primarily associated with conventional fossil fuel-powered vehicles. The transition to EVs is a vital component of the shift towards a cleaner, more sustainable energy future, providing a greener alternative with fewer pollutants.

While we often focus on the absence of tailpipe emissions when assessing the carbon footprint of EVs, true sustainability and net-zero impact necessitate a reduction in emissions throughout every stage of the EV lifecycle. This comprehensive approach is essential for electric vehicles to meet the high expectations placed on them by consumers and to represent a significant milestone in the broader effort to decarbonize both transportation and the economy as a whole.

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