2023•03•28 Bonn, Germany
In the transformation to societies with zero carbon emissions, electric vehicles are important substitutes for conventional vehicles fueled by gasoline or diesel. Despite emitting less CO2 in comparison to vehicles using internal combustion engines, a challenge of predicting and managing the potential risks of end-of-life electric vehicles and their batteries remains. An article co-authored by UNU-EHS expert Jack O’Connor sheds light on how to ensure sustainability for all, by focusing on understanding the future risks of the transition to electric mobility in countries in the Global South. Here are five insights from the article:
Currently, electric vehicles are largely produced and used in the Global North. It is foreseen that the market will grow to cover the Global South as well, where second-hand electric vehicles from Europe and the United States are already entering the international trade flow of used vehicles.
With the desire to increase the driving range for electric cars, battery sizes have also been increasing. In some cases, they are even heavier than conventional combustion engines. Lithium-Ion Batteries, containing toxic materials and chemicals, are the most common form of energy storage. Once the vehicles or the batteries are no longer functional or being used, the sustainable advantage of electric vehicles as compared to fossil-fueled vehicles is threatened if they are disposed of in a way that does not correspond with health and environmental standards.
It is essential that in their design, electric vehicles are able to be reused, safely recycled, and lead to minimal disposal. The collection of these vehicles and their batteries is a key component in ensuring sustainable disposal. Because batteries can have multiple life cycles, reusing them to guarantee energy access throughout rural areas in countries in the Global South can be a promising solution.
To maximize the use of scarce battery materials and protect both people and the environment from excessive and unsafe mining practices, more research is needed to build recycling and re-use strategies that best suit the opportunities and possibilities of the Global South.
Environmental and health risk assessments can support the prevention of future damages when they are included in strategies and policies aimed at sustainable waste disposal and management. In analysing environmental risks, water, soil and air pollution should be considered, as well as the build-up of toxic substances in livestock and crops. Health risks for workers in the waste management system and surrounding communities must be minimized. This can be done by determining the different ways they can be exposed to potential health hazards, so proper prevention measures can be implemented.