How Environmentally-Friendly are Electric Vehicles?

It’s easy enough to assume that e-vehicles are environmentally-friendly, but that assumption is often just comparing the benefits of an e-vehicle to an ICE (internal combustion engine) powered vehicle when running.

For a fairer comparison, we need to examine how the electricity is generated, throughout the entire lifecycle of the car from manufacturing through lifetime use and also recycling.

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Electric vehicles consume more energy to manufacture than ICE models

Undoubtedly, e-vehicles consume more energy than ICE models in their manufacture. An EU study from 2015 found that on average e-vehicles consume 70% more energy.

In addition to energy consumption, e-vehicles also consume a variety of rare raw materials, primarily in the electric motor and batteries – compared to ICE models.

The main eco-friendly benefit of e-vehicles is their lifetime use

e-vehicles are massively more beneficial than ICE models in their day-to-day operation provided that low-polluting electricity is used to power the vehicle.

It is essential therefore to know how the electricity powering e-vehicles has been created both in its lifetime use as well as in its manufacturing.

Importance of the way that energy is generated

Energy from renewable sources such as solar and wind will dramatically benefit the environment compared to the use of fossil fuels. On the other extreme if the electricity is 100% coal-based then this will be dramatically more polluting than fossil fuels would be.

Stats from the EU about member’s renewable energy generation as a % of the total are:

  • 2017 – 2018 – 18.9%
  • 2015 – 2016 – 18.0%
  • 2013 – 2014 – 17.1%
  • 2011 – 2012 – 15.3%

The EU has an immediate target of 20% of energy is from renewable sources by 2020.

According to Our World in Data:

“In 2019, around 11% of global primary energy came from renewable technologies.”

The following chart from the EU clearly shows the range of lifecycle CO2 emissions for different vehicle and fuel types.

Range of lifecycle CO2, emissions for different vehicle and fuel types

Range of lifecycle CO2, emissions for different vehicle and fuel types

Let’s consider the Environmental benefits

Here are a number of environmental / green-friendly benefits (in alphabetical rather than importance order):

  • Air quality enhancements – every ICE exhaust emits hydrocarbons, particulates and toxins (primarily NOx, PMs and SO2). With a move to carbonless e-vehicles, these will be eliminated, bringing with it improved air quality and consequential health benefits. It’s important to mention that there is still some air pollution with e-vehicles from tyre wear, brakes and also from the roads they use, but this is minimal by comparison to ICE pollution
  • Fossil fuel reduction – fossil fuels are replaced by electricity, which as we have discussed is generally more eco-friendly to use than fossil fuels. This does depend upon the method of electricity production, but overall electricity is more eco-friendly (particularly if solar or wind-generated)
  • Fuel transportation elimination – fuel for ICE vehicles has to be transported from fuel-producing countries great distances, via roads, sea and pipelines. This cost alone is often high, particularly in environmental terms and also creates many political tensions too
  • Legislative and regulatory compliance – governments around the world have signed up to global emissions agreements and need to find ways to achieve targets. Similarly, there are regulatory targets for certain industries, which e-vehicles are ideal to help comply with
  • Lower energy consumption – the overall amount of energy consumed will be lower with e-vehicles than their ICE equivalents
  • Noise pollution reduction – noise levels in major cities has become a major problem. This is 95% eliminated with e-vehicles, which are almost without sound. Infact, e-vehicles are so quiet that noise has needed to be added to remove the threat of pedestrian accidents as they were unaware of an approaching vehicle
  • Traffic film removal – the emissions from exhausts are bad for health (as they are toxic) but also emit over time a layer of dirt and grime, which is unsightly and costly to remove. Traffic film will drop dramatically with the elimination of fumes from millions of ICE-powered cars around the world.

Conclusion

The fact is that electric vehicles and e-mobility as a whole are only as environmentally-friendly as the electricity that goes into them. This sounds an obvious point, but it is one which is often lost in all the discussion that flows when discussing the environmental benefits of electric vehicles.

The current EU average of renewable energy mix is approaching 20% of total energy production. At this level, e-vehicles are more eco-friendly than ICE models. The global renewable energy % in 2019 was only 11% though. For the main eco-benefits of e-vehicles to be realised governments around the world need to invest increasingly in renewable energies.

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Image Credits: Stan V Petersen and EU European Environmental Agency

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