Record-levels of inflation have hit the gas pump hard, where in some cases, the cost of filling  your tank has doubled. Meanwhile, demand for electric cars – even from stalwart brands like Ford – has skyrocketed, no doubt driven by price fluctuations and uncertainty.  

In climate change discourse, cars with combustion engines have long been a sticking point, and for good reason – a sustainable alternative is sorely needed. While the investment around electric vehicles seems like a natural step, could there be consequences to the demand? What resources will we need, and how can we ensure circularity as electric vehicle production ramps up? 

In a recent paper for Nature Electronics, Jessika Luth Richter stated that we need true circularity – including global policies and agreements – in order to ensure the electric vehicle life cycle doesn’t inadvertently cause harm. Richter outlines common sustainability issues like their battery production, which is resource-intensive and uses minerals like lithium, cobalt, and nickel, often mined from socially or environmentally sensitive areas. Moreover, these materials usually come from regions that are less likely to have adequate waste management infrastructure. 

Recycling and reusing can also be trickier with electric vehicles, largely because of their batteries. Most electric vehicles use lithium-ion batteries, a complex item that requires unique technology to break down for reuse, or to dispose of (Our team at 5REDO has published an overview of current technology to reusing and recycling these batteries). Although there are ongoing innovations for working with these used batteries, the technology isn’t yet widespread, and given current demand, it needs to be.  

There’s also the question of the reuse market. Since combustion engines have been the dominant form of vehicle for decades, the recycling and used parts market is very established. The same can’t be said for electric vehicles, which begs the question of recycling capacity, especially given the surge in demand. However, as a McKinsey consultant stated in a CNBC article, that infrastructure will naturally grow over time, when current electric vehicles reach the end of their life cycle.  

When it comes to the question of whether electric vehicles are a truly sustainable alternative, experts say we need to look at that overall life cycle. While electric vehicle production causes carbon emissions and resource depletion, the life cycle of the actual car is longer, and emits next to nothing when driven, according to a resource page by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the U.S. Some have said it’s like comparing apples to oranges – the essential components are different, so our standards for measuring life cycle have to shift. 

It’s also important to consider the wider electrical grid, which in most regions of the world, is still mainly supplied by fossil fuel-burning methods like coal. For electric cars to be more impactful, we need to make the grid more sustainable. An article from Youmatter mentions how future technology could see old lithium-ion batteries used to help power buildings and machinery, a truly circular concept. So, while electric cars may not be the ‘magic bullet’ to fighting climate change – no single thing is – their technology is an important step in the right direction. While critics are quick to point out the resource-intensive aspects, those criticisms often tie back to larger needs, like de-carbonizing the electrical grid, and having large-scale investment in sustainable, circular technologies.