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It’s easy to be persuaded by the greener good and the new and shiny electric vehicles that are being brought to market, but what exact impact on the environment do these green machines actually have? Can we, in fact, consider them greener options? Let’s investigate!
It’s worth noting that even amongst the experts, opinions are split on the matter of whether an electric car is better, worse or the same as your average petrol or diesel engine when it comes to carbon footprint and environmental impact. In this article — we have tried to iron out a few of the concerns to see if there really is something to be concerned about or if we’re perhaps just making up excuses.
Let’s start at the very beginning:
Electric car production
Over the previous years, there’s been a move towards using more eco-friendly materials, both in general consumption but also in car manufacturing.
Take the new Ford Focus Electric - this vehicle is made from recycled materials and the padding made out of bio-based materials. Also the Nissan Leaf’s interior and bodywork are partly made out of green recyclables such as plastic bags, water bottles etc. Even the new Tesla Cybertruck has quite the eco feel to it as the marble dashboard is in fact, made from paper.
Because of the drastically reduced number of moving parts in an electric car as opposed to a petrol or diesel engine, the maintenance required to keep the electric car on the road is considerably less. There are fewer parts to replace and the electric vehicle lifetime should be around 200,000 miles, at which point - you may only need to replace the battery. For your average petrol/ diesel, the average lifetime is around 150,000 miles. If you are driving 12,000 miles/ year, your electric car will last you almost 17 years whereas your petrol or diesel engine will likely last you around 12.5 years.
When it comes to battery production, this is where discussions start to heat up. Some say the extraction of lithium is bad and that lithium batteries aren’t worth it, others, that it’s not much more harmful compared to traditional car manufacturing - all things considered. So what’s all the fuss actually about?
The batteries used for electric cars these days are made from very specific and relatively rare materials such as lithium and cobalt. The making of the battery and the production of the car counts for more than a third of its lifetime CO2 emissions, depending on the size of your battery.
Making an electric car does use a lot of energy, and the emissions created during the production tends to be higher than a conventional car, but it’s worth noting here - that the battery and car should also last longer. It is estimated that the production of an average petrol car will involve emissions amounting to the equivalent of 5.6 tonnes of CO2, while for an average electric car, the figure is 8.8tonnes - battery dependent.
As for lithium mining and extraction, this is often done in very desolate areas such as the higher grounds of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile. In these places, life is very limited and it’s difficult to really harm the environment and wipe out species as these areas are naturally hostile. That’s not to say it’s a good idea to put the environment at risk but compare this to the oil and gas industry. Here, they drill and extract materials from some of the most frugal places on the planet such as the ocean bed. As we’ve seen over the past 50 years — mistakes happen more than we’d like them to, destroying natural rich environments.
At the current time, one of the bigger issues is battery recycling. This is improving as technology advances, and more and more are working to find clever solutions to reuse and recycle old batteries. Hopefully, within a reasonable timeframe - batteries should be a whole lot more sustainable than they are just now.
Electric cars on the road
With no tailpipe, pure electric cars produce no carbon emissions when driving. This reduces air pollution considerably and this will make a big difference in cities. No direct emissions blasting out into the city air will mean a much cleaner environment for everyone.
There’s little contra- argument to the statement that on the road, electric cars are much less damaging to the environment.
Over the course of a year, one electric car can save an average of 1.5 million grams of CO2 emissions compared to its petrol and diesel counterpart. That’s the equivalent of four return flights from London Heathrow to Barcelona.
The emissions from electricity generation are dramatically improved when low carbon electricity is used. Unfortunately, far from all electricity is low carbon.
Depending on where you are in the world, the electricity that will come out of your socket will be from a variety of sources.
According to the Guardian, ‘Electric car drivers in Norway will mostly be using hydroelectric power (comparable to the "wind" category in the EU study); those in France, chiefly nuclear, and those in Germany and the UK, a mix of fossil and renewable, broadly comparable with the "EU-mix" figures. In the United States, the electricity source varies regionally; California uses a lot of renewables, while areas in the north-east are more likely to use fossil fuels including coal.’
On a worldwide scale, an average 60% of electricity is generated by fossil fuels such as coal and gas. In other words, if you’re driving an electric car and have an electricity source divide aligned with the average 60% coming from fossil fuels, your car indirectly produces nearly as much CO2 per mile as a petrol or diesel vehicle would.
The sources of electricity that are used by your provider are often out of your control and in the hands of the government, so they are not the fault of the car. It’s their responsibility, with your support, to ensure a more renewable and sustainable portfolio of electricity sources for your local area. If you are living in a progressive and increasingly environmentally friendly country, chances are that the percentage coming from fossil fuels is already lower than that and that it will continue to decrease. The lower this percentage gets, the greener your electric travel becomes.
If you use renewable energy to charge your electric car, you can reduce your emissions even further. If, say, you charge your car with solar panels throughout the day, you’re not using the mixed pool of electricity sources that come from the grid of your electricity retailer. This way, you can really chop down a lot of your CO2 emissions.
In the grand scheme of things, you are taking the first step by driving an electric car and it is then up the state and local government to ensure that consistent improvement and research into of electricity sources and renewables is carried out. This way, your electric car will not be guzzling electricity coming from fossil fuels but from more sustainable sources.
There is a fair bit of ambiguity on this issue as even experts fail to agree on whether electric cars can form part of a solution to the climate crisis we’re in.
One thing that you cannot argue against, is the negative health impact of fossil fuel cars. Electric vehicles do not pollute when on the road. Replace all the fossil fuel powered vehicles in some of the worlds most polluted cities and you will likely see a significant improvement in air quality and general population health.
Depending on your location, the electricity used to fuel an electric car can come from a range of sources. In one location, driving an electric car can be an obvious green solution whereas in other locations and countries — some would argue that it’s almost just as bad as fossil-fuel-powered cars. However, technically speaking, this is at fault of the electricity sources - not the car.
Research by the European Energy Agency found that, even with electricity generation, the carbon emissions of an electric car are around 17 – 30% lower than driving a petrol or diesel car.
This means that even after taking battery manufacturing and a less green mix of electricity sources into account, electric cars are still a greener option. This is due to the reduction in emissions created over the car’s lifetime.
In a world where less than 60% of electricity comes from fossil fuels, and where we’ve found out how to reuse and recycle batteries best — the electric car is considerably better for the environment.
Hopefully, in the coming years, we will see this happening as improvements are made and as technology advances.
Author: Will Craig, Founder of LeaseFetcher
Author bio: Will Craig is the founder of Lease Fetcher the UK's first car leasing comparison website and Managing Director of Digital Impact one of Scotland’s brightest and fastest-growing digital agencies.