The number of electric vehicles on the world’s roads is surging, hitting a record number last year. That should seem like good news, as the world tries to wean itself off fossil fuels that are wrecking the global climate. But as electric cars become more popular, some question just how environmentally friendly they are. Indeed, the debate about how environmentally friendly electric cars “really are” comes up a lot on our Facebook forums.
This guide will share a range of findings to back up the environmental claims, as well as address the current and legitimate issues and drawbacks that are part of the situation.
As way of quick scientific support for electric cars, last year researchers from the universities of Cambridge, Exeter, and Nijmegen in The Netherlands found that in 95% of the world, driving an electric car is better for the environment than driving a gasoline-powered car. (The report can be found here and was published by Nature.)
What does Greenpeace say?
Greenpeace are rather keen on us all trying to be environmentally friendly. If electric cars weren’t environmentally friendly, they would passionately say so. Instead, they state on their website that “electric cars are greener than petrol cars”, and “switching to electric cars is essential”, and that “the reality is that an electric car has about half the climate impact over its lifetime compared to an average EU car today. In fact, rapidly switching from fossil fuelled cars and vans to electric vehicles is one of the most important things the government can do for the climate”.
Greenpeace state that the two main reasons why electric cars are so much better for the environment than petrol and diesel cars are, is because:
- Electricity is getting cleaner all the time
“While conventional cars will always need dirty fossil fuels, electric vehicles can (and increasingly do) run on renewable energy. In the UK, the carbon footprint of electricity is falling fast, and Greenpeace is campaigning for an 80% renewable grid by 2030. Every year this trend continues, electric cars increase their advantage…
As the electricity grid gets cleaner, the carbon impact of manufacturing falls for all new cars. But once they’re actually on the road, powering a petrol car is as polluting as ever.”
- Electric motors are much more efficient than conventional engines
“Despite more than 100 years of refinements, the internal combustion engine used in cars just isn’t that good at converting fuel into movement. Even in the most efficient petrol engines, only around 12-30% of the energy in the fuel ever makes it to the wheels or other useful functions. The rest is wasted as noise and heat…
Electric motors, by contrast, are more like 77% efficient – they get more than twice as many miles out of the same amount of energy. This efficiency gap is so big that even in Poland where most electricity comes from coal-fired power stations, electric cars emit about 25% less carbon than their fossil fuelled equivalents.”
However, Greenpeace also say that electric cars are currently far from perfect: “While electric cars are undoubtedly less harmful than petrol cars, frankly that’s a pretty low bar”.
There are also problems with some of the materials that make up today’s electric vehicle batteries. As production ramps up, these issues need to be fixed. However, as Vidar Eide states below, that these serve more as temporary issues, as for example, battery technology is evolving and in time they will not require expensive or scarce materials.
It’s also worth pointing out that petrol and diesel also equates to the mining of resources, which have environmental impacts in their extraction, as well as their use. Or another way to look at it is that “it’s impossible to burn oil ethically and sustainably. It is possible to produce electric vehicles in ways that minimise impact.” Although they and we concede that this will take time.
We found some useful Q&A content from Vidar Eide, a vice president for eMobility in Norway, that helps to give some useful answers to some of the common concerns we hear…
“The production of car batteries is detrimental to scarce and non-renewable resources, especially lithium and other precious metals. This is not sustainable. “
Answer: It is not correct to say that batteries contain scarce resources. Metals such as cobalt and lithium are found in many places, but in the short term there will be a shortage because the need will grow every year. However, battery manufacturers are constantly working to reduce the use of the most expensive metals, and eventually we will get batteries with a completely different composition than today.
“Electric cars require much more energy to produce than traditional cars, especially on account of the batteries. Electric cars must therefore be driven longer before they can be considered zero-emission cars.”
Answer: The production of batteries creates greenhouse gas emissions, but this is primarily because the batteries are produced in Asia and China. The power mix is becoming cleaner there, too. When we can eventually produce the batteries with electricity from renewable energy sources, the batteries will be free of “built-in” emissions.
“The power we use to charge electric cars comes from coal and gas!”
Answer: life-cycle studies show that electric cars are more environmentally friendly than fossil cars, regardless of power mix. However, in most countries the power mix is becoming more and more sustainable.
“Increasing the number of electric cars increases the load on the power grid. More masts must be built and more powerful cables must be added to meet the demand.”
Answer: The power grid can easily handle more electric cars, especially when we can increasingly control when during the day and night cars are charged. Our need to strengthen the power grid stems not from electric cars, but from increasing electrification in general.
“The batteries are an environmental time bomb because they cannot be reused. Many of them end up in landfill sites and contribute to polluting the environment.”
Answer: Electric car batteries will not end up in landfill sites – they are too valuable for that. Today, the batteries often get a new life in the power system to support the phasing in of wind and solar power. After that it will pay to recycle them because they contain valuable materials.
Comparing carbon footprints
One way to compare the climate impacts of different vehicle models is with this interactive online tool made by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who tried to incorporate all the relevant factors: the emissions involved in manufacturing the cars and in producing gasoline and diesel fuel, how much gasoline conventional cars burn, and where the electricity to charge electric vehicles comes from. The yellow section at the bottom shows the low (in comparison) greenhouse emissions of electric car production and use, compared to other car types above.
This was shared in the New York Times and refers to the US market, while in the UK and EU, the source of electricity comes from more renewable sources than the US, and therefore the overall emissions for the UK could be much better in comparison.
In 2020, for the first time in the UK, renewable electricity outpaced fossil fuel generated electricity, with wind turbines providing almost a quarter of the electricity delivered to the grid.
The independent climate think-tank behind the study revealed that renewable energy generated by wind, sunlight, water and wood made up 42% of the UK’s electricity in 2020 compared with 41% generated from gas and coal plants together.
And in the two years since then, the renewable energy figure has increased. And therefore, while the grid isn’t fully green, at all, when it matters where the electricity comes from (for production and charging) the UK grid may be greener than you think, and getting better year-on-year.
This is aided by technology evolution in renewable energy, as “nowadays it’s much easier to build large scale solar or offshore wind farms, compared to building new fossil fuel power plants. What we see is more renewable electricity coming into the grid all over the world.”
It also depends on the country
From this table, shared in a recent Reuters article, it shows that just ‘how environmentally friendly are electric cars?’ depends on the country you are based in, and what is used to fuel the local grid.
When there is a mix of fossil fuel and renewable power plants, then electric cars are almost always much greener than conventional cars.
Even though electric vehicles are more emissions-intensive to create, because of their batteries, their electric motors are more efficient than traditional internal combustion engines that burn fossil fuels.
““The reason electric vehicles look like an appealing climate solution is that if we can make our grids zero-carbon, then vehicle emissions drop way, way down,” said Jessika Trancik, an associate professor of energy studies at M.I.T. “Whereas even the best hybrids that burn gasoline will always have a baseline of emissions they can’t go below.”
The problem with raw materials
Like many other batteries, the lithium-ion cells that power most electric vehicles rely on raw materials — like cobalt, lithium and other earth elements — that have been linked to grave environmental and human rights concerns, as they can come from unregulated mines.
Mining lithium also uses large amounts of groundwater, and in this respect the water required for producing batteries means that the manufacture of electric cars is currently up to 50% more water intensive than traditional internal combustion engines.
However, car brands and other manufacturers have committed to eliminating “artisanal” cobalt from their supply chains, and have also said they will develop batteries that decrease, or do away with, cobalt altogether, and are currently working with mines to lessen their environmental footprint, and make sure miners are working in safe conditions.
“Producing electric vehicles leads to significantly more emissions than producing petrol cars. Depending on the country of production, that’s between 30% to 40% extra in production emissions, which is mostly from the battery production,” said Florian Knobloch, a fellow at the Cambridge Centre for Environment, Energy and Natural Resource Governance.
However, those higher production emission numbers are seen as “an initial investment, which pays off rather quickly due to the reduced lifetime emissions.”
A promising approach to tackling used electric vehicle batteries is finding them a second life in storage and other applications. “For cars, when the battery goes below say 80% of its capacity, the range is reduced,” says Amol Phadke, a senior scientist at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. “But that’s not a constraint for stationary storage.”
Various automakers, including BMW and Nissan have piloted the use of old electric vehicle batteries for grid storage. General Motors has said it designed its battery packs with second-life use in mind. But there are challenges: Reusing lithium-ion batteries requires extensive testing and upgrades to make sure they perform reliably.
If done properly, though, used car batteries could continue to be used for a decade or more as backup storage for solar power, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found in a study last year.
Also, while electric car batteries can be recycled (see Veolia in the UK) people who currently question the lack of current widescale recycling infrastructure, might not realise that we don’t need extensive recycling infrastructure yet because the electric cars that exist are new, or relatively new, so very few currently need to be recycled.
And indeed, electric car makers are already working to ensure they have significant recycling capacity in place before EVs start reaching the end of their life after up to 20 years.
Is hydrogen the answer?
Many EV doubters also believe that hydrogen is the real answer. Hydrogen allows for emission free driving too, and takes five minutes to top up, rather than 30 minutes.
However, currently most hydrogen is made from natural gas, via an energy-intensive process.
And while electric cars have boomed, offering those in the UK a choice of well over 100 different models, in all shapes and sizes, from all different brands, with the ability to charge cheaply and efficiently at home overnight (or using solar panels) along with over 25000 public charge points to choose from if travelling long distances (you can find them on the www.green.car public charge map). In contrast, for hydrogen, there are currently only 2 models available, and only 11 charging stations to charge from in the UK. Brands such as BMW, Land Rover and Vauxhall are all planning to bring out models within the next five years. However, when you compare the numbers, it’s clear that hydrogen isn’t fully environmentally friendly (yet) or accessible (yet) and it seems like it would take decades to get anywhere near the infrastructure of electric cars, which are almost the exclusive focus of countries and therefore car makers.
Use solar panels!
It’s also worth reminding readers that if you have solar panels, or install them, then you can charge your electric car for free, and this removes the issue of electricity from the grid coming from a mix that does or may include fossil fuels.
Electric cars are the greenest choice
An electric car that uses electricity from clean, renewable sources produces no greenhouse gas emissions. While a petrol-powered vehicle emits on average two tonnes of CO2 each year.
Electric cars are greener than conventional petrol and diesel cars, as they produce no emissions in their running.
There are currently environmental issues that come into the equation, that are or can be significant, which mean that electric cars are not yet perfect; in that mining resources for batteries, carbon emitted in production, and fossil-fuel powered electricity used in charging, all come into play, and reduce the overall eco-credentials.
However, as stated above, battery production is evolving and will become less of an issue, while energy sources are becoming more sustainable, which will reduce effects further. (And even in the greyest parts of the UK we get enough sunlight to charge our cars using solar panels). And despite the current drawbacks, the evidence shows that electric cars are far more environmentally friendly in their overall carbon footprint, than petrol or diesel cars.
A wealth of research shows that electric cars are better for the environment. They emit fewer greenhouse gases and air pollutants than petrol or diesel cars. And this takes into account their production, and electricity generation used to keep them running.
Improvements are needed in the manufacture and production of batteries, to evolve the materials and processes used, while countries need to continue to decarbonise the grid, by focussing fully on renewable and sustainable sources. But speedy progress is happening in these respects as the world pivots to electric cars.
In terms of choosing which car to get, an electric car is the most environmentally friendly choice. And in the words of transportenvironment.org, “electrification is now inevitable, but it must happen sustainably and not leave anyone behind.”
If you would like to find the right electric car for you, you can use our EV finder tool below. And if you would like to know more about electric car batteries and how they are recycled, you can find out here, and find out about home charging here.