Their batteries hurt the environment, but EVs still beat gas cars. Here’s why

By Camila Domonoske
Tenke Fungurume Mine, one of the largest copper and cobalt mines in the world, is owned by Chinese company CMOC, in southeastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Minerals like cobalt are important components of electric vehicle batteries, but mines that produce them can hurt the environment and people nearby. AFP via Getty Images

Earlier this year, NPR’s podcast The Sunday Story reached out for listener questions about electric vehicles. You can hear the resulting podcast here. We’re also taking some of the most-asked questions and answering them here on

Electric vehicles are sometimes called “zero-emission vehicles.” But the batteries that go into them are not zero-emission at all. In fact, making those batteries takes a lot of (mostly-not-clean) energy and hurts the environment in other ways, a fact that’s become common knowledge after widespread media coverage.

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Does that environmental damage cancel out the green benefits of giving up gasoline? Or, as Jennifer Sousie, who owns a Nissan Leaf, put it: “Does the manufacturing and ultimate disposal of the batteries completely negate all the good that the no-emission aspect of my car does?”

The answer is no. Here’s why.

Batteries do more harm upfront – then less year after year

With all that’s required to mine and process minerals — from giant diesel trucks to fossil-fuel-powered refineries — EV battery production has a significant carbon footprint. As a result, building an electric vehicle does more damage to the climate than building a gas car does.

But the gas car starts to catch up as soon as it goes its first mile.

If you look at the climate impact of building and using a vehicle – something called a “lifecycle analysis” – study after study has found a clear benefit to EVs. The size of the benefit varies – by vehicle, the source of the electricity it runs on, and a host of other factors – but the overall trend is obvious.

“The results were clearer than we thought, actually,” says Georg Bieker, with the International Council on Clean Transportation, who authored one of those reports. (This is the group that busted Volkswagen for cheating on its emissions tests. Holding industries accountable for whether they’re actually reducing emissions is the ICCT’s whole thing.).

Building a battery is an environmental cost that’s paid once. Burning gasoline is a cost that’s paid again, and again, and again.

Gasoline’s environmental cost is ongoing

Several listeners asked NPR about the negative impacts of mines, beyond carbon emissions. There are several: They disrupt habitats. They pollute with runoff or other waste. And people can suffer in other ways: worker poisonings, child labor, indigenous communities’ rights violated and more.

Thea Riofrancos is a political scientist who has sounded the alarm about these impacts. She’s glad people are asking these questions – which she’d like to see them do for more than just EVs. “The fact that mined products are in basically everything we use should give us pause,” she says.

And, she says, anybody weighing an EV versus a gas-powered car needs to think just as carefully about the other side of the equation: the cost of relying on fossil fuels.

“A traditional car needs mining every day, needs mining every time it’s used. It needs the whole extraction complex of fossil fuels in order to power it,” she said.

The carbon pollution from burning gasoline and diesel in vehicles is the top contributor to climate change in the U.S. And there are other costs: Oil spills; funding for corrupt oil-rich regimes; the illnesses and preventable deaths caused by pollution from fossil fuels.

Add it up, she says, and if you’re concerned about all the harms from mining, you’ll still want to choose an EV over a comparable gas car.

New technology and better practices can reduce EVs’ footprint

There are several ways that manufacturing EVs could become cleaner.

Public pressure and a shift toward mining in regions with stronger regulations, like the U.S. instead of China, could reduce the harms done in mines. New technology, like a mining method called “direct lithium extraction,” could produce minerals with much smaller footprints.

Batteries are also changing. A group called Lead the Charge is evaluating automakers on their efforts to clean up supply chains and source materials ethically; there’s a wide range of ratings.

Right now, if you want to avoid cobalt in your battery because of the horrific mining conditions, you could seek out an LFP battery, which is made without cobalt – they’re used in vehicles like the Tesla Model 3 and Ford Mach-E. In the future, batteries based on sodium might be an alternative to lithium.

And last but not least, battery minerals can be recycled. This won’t meaningfully reduce the need for mining until huge numbers of EVs on the road have reached the end of their lifespan. But eventually, the same molecules of lithium and nickel could be used for many generations of cars – something that can’t be said for fossil fuels. (Recycling batteries is also important because it addresses environmental concerns about the risks of throwing them out.)

What’s best for the planet? Smaller batteries, fewer vehicles

Meanwhile, for people who want to minimize their impact on the environment today, Riofrancos has some advice.

First, ask whether you need a car at all. Riofrancos is a big advocate for bikes and public transit, which have much smaller footprints than an EV. But she also knows first-hand that many parts of the U.S. are not designed for car-free living – after years as a bike commuter, she now lives in Providence, Rhode Island, where that doesn’t work. (She tried.)

She and her husband recently replaced their vehicle. “I was not going to buy another car that uses gasoline, knowing what I know about the climate,” she says. “But I also have a lot of question marks about EVs, knowing what I know about EV supply chains.”

So after careful consideration, she bought an EV. But not just any EV. A used Chevy Bolt, which is a small EV – smaller batteries require less mining. And since it was used, it was both more affordable and already had more than made up for the impacts of its manufacturing through the gasoline it had saved.

Listeners worried about battery mining impacts are asking the right questions, Riofrancos says. And the answers are more complicated than “yes” or “no” to EVs – they might include what kind of EV, what size and type of battery, and whether to buy a car at all.

“You know, there’s no perfect world out there, but there is better and worse and everything in between,” Riofrancos says.