If you are thinking of buying an electric vehicle (EV), you might have wondered how their green credentials stack up. Given the widespread concern about climate change and global environmental targets, it’s an important point. Below, we reveal the surprising answer to this question.
Pros and cons
There’s no doubt that electric vans and cars cause less environmental damage than their fossil-fuelled equivalents – in several ways. First, the absence of tailpipes and toxic exhaust gases means air pollution is not as high near busy roads. As a result, local populations will be less prone to respiratory problems and illness.
Other benefits include reduced noise, especially in cities and towns. However, the environmental friendliness is, to some extent, limited by the carbon released during battery manufacturing. Although inevitable, the amount depends on the location of each manufacturing plant and its electricity supply grid.
Experts have calculated that EV production gives off three-fifths more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere compared to vehicles with internal combustion engines. As much as half* of the CO₂ released during EV manufacturing is due to their sizeable lithium-ion batteries alone.
EV battery production in China releases three times as much greenhouse gas as equivalent processes in the USA. Calculations suggest that this carbon footprint would reduce by half if factories switched to using renewable energy sources alone.
EVs’ reliance on regular recharging means they are only as environmentally friendly as the mains electrical power used. In some countries, these cars of the future are responsible for as little as 31 per cent of the carbon dioxide emitted by petrol or diesel-fuelled vehicles of similar size.
As an illustration, only nine per cent of the electricity generated in France comes from coal, oil and gas due to the prevalence of nuclear power. In contrast, power stations in China and India burn considerable amounts of coal, sometimes described as the dirtiest fossil fuel. Consequently, running an electric car in India would still give off around two-thirds (66 per cent) of the amount of carbon dioxide associated with conventional motor vehicles.
A European Environment Agency report** has confirmed that in comparison to diesel and petrol-driven vehicles, EVs emit between 17 and 30 per cent less carbon over their average entire life cycle. Furthermore, as electricity generation becomes cleaner in line with climate goals and the roadmap to 2050, gaseous carbon release could reduce by almost three quarters (73 per cent). The benefits for the population and the environment are self-evident.
According to an estimate published by the National Grid, approximately 36 million EVs will be in circulation within the UK by 2040. However, their powerful batteries are not as easy to recycle as their traditional lead-acid counterparts. In 2021, only one in every twenty went to recycling, though manufacturers such as Tesla are attempting to improve this situation.
Given that usage of EVs is increasing, the demand for battery recycling looks set to rise. Li-ion cells are not as harmful to the environment as older types but can explode if mishandled during disassembly.
Using an EV emits an average of 4.6 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. Thus, although these vehicles are less harmful, they are not entirely green.
On the positive side, improvements in technology and power generation would increase the advantages and benefits of EVs. Boosting the proportion of energy from renewables will be pivotal in improving the environmental effects of battery production and charging.
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