Electric cars (EVs) are zero-emission vehicles. That means they don’t emit Carbon Dioxide (CO2) or Nitrous Oxides (NOx) like a petrol or diesel car (ICE). That would automatically suggest that an electric car is much better for the environment, but that isn't the case.
In this article, we will look at every element of electric cars, including charging, batteries and production, to explain whether they are really better for the environment.
ICEs have an internal combustion engine while an EV is driven by an electric motor and lithium-ion batteries. This makes driving an electric car much better for the environment. A petrol or diesel vehicle produces around 2.4kg of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) per litre of fuel burned, whereas an electric car doesn't produce any.
Other main differences include:
Clearly, producing no exhaust emissions makes an electric car much better for the environment than an ICE. They are a sustainable mode of transport and the fact that they aren't powered by fossil fuels makes them much better for our health too.
Exhaust gases don’t just contribute to Climate Change. According to a recent study, air pollution in urban areas caused 1.8 million excess deaths around the world in 2019. If there are more electric cars than ICEs in our towns and cities, the air quality will be better.
That's why driving an electric car is one of the better things we can do for the environment. It won't just reduce our carbon footprint and the impact of Climate Change, but it also cleans up the air we breathe.
However, driving and producing an electric car are two very different things. Are electric cars still better for the environment than an ICE once we consider their whole lifecycle?
Electric cars use an advanced form of lithium-ion batteries. Smartphones have used these batteries for years and they are seen as unsustainable. This is because they don’t degrade easily and can leak, causing environmental damage. In the past, they have also been produced unethically, but attitudes are changing. Many companies have committed to changing this process.
However, while lithium-ion smartphone batteries can't be reused, EV batteries can. There are schemes looking at repurposing them for use in other settings. Even though they no longer work as a main power source, they can be used as a secondary power source. The most common use is to provide solar power to houses in a battery storage system. Improving the sustainability of batteries through recycling programs reduces their environmental impact.
Charging an electric car uses electricity from the National Grid. In the UK, this is powered almost extensively by fossil fuels. Unfortunately, this reduces an EV's ability to be zero-emissions. Most are only Carbon Neutral due to the way our electricity supply works.
In 2020, only 21.5% of the UK's energy came from renewable sources. While this is more than double what we produced in 2010 (10.1%), we have a very long way to go before electric car charging is truly sustainable.
Simply put, driving an electric car may be better for the environment but powering an electric car is not.
However, this situation is changing. Our reliance on coal power plants has fallen and the Government is investing more in renewable energy sources. This means that EVs will be truly emissions-free in the near future.
Electric cars are built in a similar way to an ICE. Unfortunately, the way we build the batteries is worse for the environment. This means that EV production generates more carbon emissions by the time the vehicles roll off the production line.
Electric car batteries are made from rare earth elements (REE) such as lithium, nickel, cobalt and/or graphite. These have to be mined from under the surface of the Earth, a process that isn't very environmentally friendly. According to the Chinese Society of Rare Earths, for every tonne of REE mined, we create 75 tonnes of acid waste and 1 tonne of radioactive residues. What's more, this isn’t always handled in the right way.
All these pollution issues can have a big impact on the environmental friendliness of an electric car.
Electric cars with heavy batteries, such as those that can travel more than 300 miles on a single charge, will emit up to 8% more fine particulate from tyres and road wear than an equivalent petrol or diesel car, according to a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development. On top of that, electric cars still produce brake dust and other particulate matter that contributes to air pollution.
However, the impact of non-exhaust based pollution is not as bad as some reports and high-profile voices make out. The pollutants caused by brake, tyre and road surface wear contribute less than 10% of the UK's total emissions output each. On the other hand, 27% of the UK's total emissions in 2019 came from transport. 91% of these emissions came from road transport, 61% of which came from cars and taxis alone.
Not only is non-exhaust pollution less of an issue than exhaust emissions, EVs are able to negate some of these issues. For example, Regenerative braking reduces brake wear. This system means that you can drive an EV safely without touching the brake pedal very often at all.
In short, driving a zero-emissions vehicle solves a lot more pollution problems than it causes.
While there are a few issues with electric cars, they are much better for the environment than an ICE. The main problem is that we are still dependent on fossil fuels.
This reliance makes building an EV environmentally unfriendly. However, that impact is offset within 2 years of average driving in the EU or 6-16 months in the USA. While the impact of using fossil fuels to charge your electric car will continue, it has a much lower impact on the planet than driving an ICE every day.
What’s more, there is a big commitment to producing more sustainable energy as soon as possible. And the more we reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, the less time it will take to offset the pollution. Eventually, electric cars will be zero-emissions throughout their lifespan and even better for the environment than they currently are.
If you’re looking for more reasons why buying an electric car over a hybrid, petrol or diesel is a great idea, check out this article. We compare the disadvantages of traditional fuel types with the advantages of electric power and give a direct comparison of all three vehicle types.
Electric car batteries can be recycled, but the process is difficult and expensive. That means it isn't as efficient as it should be. In this article, you'll learn why inefficient EV battery recycling is such a problem and what's being done to improve the situation.
If you’re still worried about the environmental impact of electric car batteries, read this article to find out how long EV batteries last, what they’re made of and more about what happens when they die.
Electric cars are zero-emissions vehicles because they use an electric motor alongside these lithium-ion batteries instead of an internal combustion engine. If Read this guide to learn more about how EVs work.