Modern tires are made of about 50% natural rubber, and some compagnies plan to increase this proportion.
Natural rubber comes from rubber trees, which are being planted in former tropical forests.
Since electric vehicles are heavier, they can wear tires out about 30% faster than comparable gasoline-powered models.
According to new studies made with the use of sophisticated satellites, rubber trees are a major cause of deforestation, and electric vehicles could make this problem worse.
Indeed, the ever-increasing need for rubber is pushing compagnies and governments to convert large parts of tropical forests into rubber tree monocultures all around the world.
Obviously, this has a major environmental impact on all of the species who live in the tropical forests, many of which are endangered.
Despite campaigns to stop deforestation for cocoa, coffee, or farming, among others, there has been very little pushback against the effects of the rubber industry on this issue.
This is because public awareness of the fact that rubber is a natural product remains low, despite the rubber tree having been used in industrial applications for the best part of two centuries already.
The 2.3 billion tires manufactured every year use about 70% of the world’s production of natural rubber, and the growing number of new vehicles registered every year globally pushes for more and more rubber plantations.
This problem is not about to get better either, since leading tire compagnies such as Michelin say they want to increase the proportion of natural rubber used in their tires in order to reduce their perceived environmental impact.
At the moment, most modern tires are made of an equal mix of natural and synthetic rubbers, which are blended to give tires the necessary properties, such as cold resistance and better grip.
Since synthetic rubber is made of mineral oil, a product of fossil fuels, its production is viewed in a bad light by environmental groups and the public. On the other hand, the lack of information about deforestation caused by rubber plantations means that the use of natural rubber is exempt from most criticism.
Experts say that while reducing the tire industry’s reliance on fossil fuels seems like a good step toward climate protection, its effect on deforestation could actually make it more damaging for the planet as a whole.
In addition, the increasing market share of electric vehicles in key countries such as China and the United States, as well as proposed bans on combustion-powered models in the coming decade could significantly increase the need for rubber plantations.
Indeed, electric vehicles are much heavier than similarly sized vehicles powered by a gasoline or diesel engine, which means that they wear out their tires faster.
In fact, Goodyear says this increase in wear could be as high as 30% when using conventional tires.
One of the proposed solutions to this problem will come in the form of tires specially made for EVs, many of which are under development at the moment.
Another way to ensure tire production doesn’t contribute to deforestation would be to set up a monitoring process that could track the use of natural rubber from the tree all the way to the finished tires, as is already the case for other products that cause deforestation.
At the moment, there is only one tire that is FSC-certified: a Pirelli model introduced in 2021 especially for use by BMW.
Specialists also say that promoting agroforestry (planting rubber trees amongst other types) over monoculture plantations could mitigate the impact on wildlife and climate while producing a similar yield of rubber product.