There has been a lot of excitement about Electric vehicles (EVs) both in India and around the world. Adoption of EVs is gathering pace globally. China had as many as 7.8 million EVs on the road by the end of 2021. The EU had 5.6 million and the UK 0.8 million.

India, too, is seeing a shift. As on date there are close to a million EVs (including two-wheelers) on the Indian roads. Though there have been instances of batteries exploding or vehicles catching fire, experts see this more as teething problems and do not expect it slowing the pace of adoption.

According to the International Energy Agency, global annual EV sales is expected to increase from three million in 2017 to 23 million in 2030. Another report puts total number of EVs on the road by 2030 at 145 million. They may well account for half of global passenger vehicle sales by 2035. Traditional auto makers are gearing up for the transition. Volvo has announced that it will stop selling internal combustion engine (ICE) powered vehicles by 2030. Ford, General Motors and Mercedes Benz have said that they will do so by 2035.

The adoption of EVs is also catalysed by strong fiscal support by governments across the world. India and Germany offer the maximum incentives – 25 per cent of the average sale price (ASP). China started-off at 22 per cent of ASP in 2017 and has since dropped it to about 8 per cent. France offers about 15 per cent.

The US, a laggard when it comes to EV adoption, plans to offer 25 per cent subsidy as part of the Build Back Better Bill. In real terms these are large funds. The Modi government has an outlay of ₹10,000 crore as part of the FAME-2 scheme over a three-year period. Over and above this, State governments are offering incentives too. But are EVs as green as they are portrayed to be?

On the face of it, yes. EVs emit 67 per cent less greenhouse gases compared to an ICE vehicle. However, things get really complicated (or should we say dirty) if you look deeper and factor in the pollution caused by the entire ecosystem. Pamela Coke-Hamilton, former Director of International Trade at UNCTAD, put it well when she said in a paper, “Most consumers are only aware of the ‘clean’ aspects of EVs. The dirty aspects of the production process are out of sight.” If one looks at this from India’s perspective, there are many red flags.

Source of energy 

Almost two-third of India’s electricity is generated from coal — a far from clean energy source. By charging EVs with this energy, the pollution is just shifted from roads to other parts of the country where the power plant is located. Overall reduction in greenhouse gas emission is unlikely to be significant.

Battery: A typical Lithium-ion battery used in an electric passenger vehicle contains 8 kg of Lithium, 35 kg of nickel, 20 kg of manganese and 14 kg of cobalt. While India does not have much reserves of these metals, mining them elsewhere comes at a high social and environmental cost. Take the case of Lithium. Bulk of world’s Lithium reserves are in South America’s salt flats in the Andean region (across Argentina, Bolivia and Chile). It is estimated that two million litres of water are needed to produce a tonne of Lithium. This deprives indigenous farmers there of badly needed water. Mining cobalt, another important ingredient in a battery, is even worse.

Democratic Republic of Congo accounts for 70 per cent of world’s cobalt production. With lax regulations there, dust from excavating the metal has caused significant respiratory diseases and birth defects there. Environmental damage has also been severe. The mining process has polluted rivers and aquatic lives, the effect of which is expected to last hundreds of years. The case with mining nickel and manganese is no better.

Battery disposal: EV batteries are very toxic. Experts have said that a cell phone battery dumped on the ground can pollute one square kilometres for 50 years. This is because cobalt and nickel do not break down in nature. Manganese can pollute the soil, air and water. Imagine the damage thousands of car batteries can do to India’s environment, if they are not disposed properly.

Though the government’s policy to shift to a cleaner fuel is welcome, a holistic approach will ensure that it will succeed in its objective of cutting emission and doing so without creating a problem for the future. China, for instance, started-off its EV journey a few years ago without preparing adequately when it comes to battery disposal and recycling. Today, it is wondering how to dispose thousands of tonnes of Lithium-ion batteries. To avoid the same mistake, the government needs a plan and the time for it is just about right.

Action plan 

The government should accelerate its efforts to boost renewable energy. That will reduce the share of coal in the energy mix and by using green energy EVs can help cut greenhouse gas emission effectively. That apart, India must join other nations and push for responsible sourcing of metals that go into the battery. Only then will miners adopt sustainable processes.

A bigger step will be to encourage research in India for developing batteries that replace cobalt and nickel with other metals (research is already on globally).

Work is also needed to ensure that Lithium-ion batteries work efficiently and last longer in India’s hot/humid conditions. In other markets life of a Lithium-ion battery outlasts the EVs by many years. Governments there are working with the industry to promote secondary usage (after use in an EV). This will extend the battery life. India do needs to adopt a similar approach. That apart, the government should also mandate recycling 100 per cent of the batteries. It will, indeed, help if battery designs are re-cycle friendly.

These measures are critical as India imports the metals that go into the battery. By not extending the life of a battery and not recycling it aggressively, India’s energy dependence will shift from West Asia to China (which controls much of the rare earth metals that a battery needs). Not a good proposition from national security point of view.