Electric cars are held aloft as representing a cleaner, greener future. They’re so good for the environment, the government will pay you to buy one. That’s the theory, anyway.
In reality, it’s not quite as simple as that. Some detractors point to production issues, the life of a battery and the source of the electricity as reasons why electric cars aren’t the eco pin-ups they first appear.
Here, we’ll look at the evidence for and against the electric car.
What the experts say
Hardly a month goes by without the announcement of a new study into the green credentials of electric cars. One of the most credible is a 2020 report by scientists from the universities of Exeter, Nijmegen and Cambridge.
They found that in 95 percent of the world, driving an electric car is better for the climate than a conventional petrol car. The study projects that within 30 years, every second car could be electric, helping to reduce worldwide CO2 emissions by up to 1.5 gigatons per year.
It also says that average lifetime emissions from electric cars are up to 70 percent lower than petrol in countries like Sweden and France, where most electricity is sourced from renewable and nuclear energy.
This is a crucial point. As the professor of economics Hans-Werner Sinn wrote in The Guardian, ‘Electric vehicles also emit substantial amounts of CO2, the only difference being that the exhaust is released at a remove – that is, at the power plant’.
Sinn explained this is more apparent at certain times, when ‘coal- or gas-fired power plants are needed to ensure energy supply during the “dark doldrums” when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining’.
The article goes on to say that, even when electric cars are charged using solar or wind energy, ‘enormous amounts of fossil fuels’ are used to produce batteries, ‘offsetting the supposed emissions reduction’.
In 2019, a report by Sinn and the physicist Christoph Buchal found that an electric car emits ‘a bit more CO2’ than a modern diesel car. This was supported by data published by Volkswagen.
Meanwhile, an Austrian study found that a medium-size electric car must drive 219,000 kilometres (136,000 miles) before it begins to outperform a diesel car in terms of CO2 emissions. ‘EV batteries don’t last long enough to achieve that distance in the first place,’ said Sinn.
Dr Jean-Francois Mercure at the University of Exeter isn’t convinced, arguing that the ‘last few debatable cases will soon disappear’. The University of Nijmegen’s Dr Florian Knobloch, added: ‘Even in our worst-case scenario, there would be a reduction in emissions in almost all cases’.
This is a view shared by the European Environment Agency (EEA). In a report published in 2018, it concluded that electric cars emit less greenhouse gases and air pollutants over their entire life cycle than petrol and diesel cars.
Indeed, using the current EU energy mix, the emissions of an electric car are between 17 percent and 30 percent lower than a petrol or diesel car. As the carbon intensity of the energy mix reduces, this could be cut by at least 73 percent within 30 years.
Zero tailpipe emissions
By the time an electric car hits the road, the bulk of its emissions have been produced. At a local level, the electric car will produce zero tailpipe emissions, which is why they are welcomed in city and town centres where air quality restrictions are in place.
There are also the added environmental benefits associated with reduced noise, both inside the car and for passing pedestrians and residents.
An electric car battery is expected to last around 10 years or 150,000 miles before it needs to be replaced. In an age when a well maintained petrol or diesel car could achieve a seven-figure mileage, this is a potential fly in the ointment of the electric car’s green credentials.
Battery production puts an incredible strain on the planet’s natural resources, with mining for the materials taking place in some of the poorest regions of the world. This creates social, ethical and ecological problems at a local and national level.
Although car batteries can be put to use for alternative means – not to mention recycled – the end game is to close the loop of production. In other words, reusing the raw batteries in the production of new electric car batteries will put less strain on the planet’s natural resources.
The UK government’s Air Quality Expert Group said that ‘non-exhaust emissions are recognised as a source of ambient concentrations of airborne particulate matter, even for vehicles with zero emissions of particles’.
According to Emissions Analytics, tyres are a major contributor to these non-exhaust emissions. The dust and particulates emitted from tyres serve to reduce local air quality, while the larger chunks are a significant source of microplastics in our oceans.
We also need to factor in the effects of brake and road dust, both of which are common to electric vehicles and conventional cars.
It’s clear that electric cars aren’t perfect. Work still needs to be done in the field of battery production and recycling, while question marks will remain until the production of electricity is 100 percent green.
However, the benefits in terms of local air quality, noise pollution and our reduced dependence on fossil fuels cannot be ignored.
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