The environmental impact of electric cars

Neelesh Vasistha Jul 23, 2021 · 5 min read

Like any disruptive product, electric vehicles (EVs) have been lashed by both hype and critique. Some of this is fair scepticism poured over the industry’s many cracks. But often, it’s bad actors, usually with a political bent, spraying lies about a young but well-meaning industry.

With all this rubbing information, what is the deal, exactly — are electric cars good for the environment? The short answer is yes. The longer answer is mostly: but if they’re not, they will be. This article slices through the mists and examines the environmental impact of EVs.

Beware the misinformation

The EV world is pretty exciting, at least for us and a rainbow of mobility/climate/tech enthusiasts. Open any industry magazine, and you’ll find walls of stories about recent inventions, regulations, models and collaborations. But that’s not really a headline for the masses. It’s far less sexy than a scandalous article or video puncturing the ‘EV green fairytale’. The truth, as it tends to be, is a lot more complicated.

On a general note, be suspicious of anyone who smears an aspect of EV sustainability without offering a comparison to traditional, internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEVs). In fact, that’s a good rule of thumb for any substitute: don’t tell me how bad X is without comparing it to Y—the thing it’s supposed to replace. Context is everything.

How do electric cars compare to ICEVs environmentally?

On balance, EV production still creates more carbon than ICEVs. But — don’t leave without stapling this to a few more facts. Firstly, this is due to battery production: the most decisive, and carbon-intensive part of the car. Secondly, this difference can be very narrow, depending on country. Compared to China, European and American battery manufacturers generate two-thirds less emissions, bringing them close to parity with ICEVs.

Finally, this ‘victory’ for ICEVs will be incredibly short-lived. Even the most grizzled EV skeptics can understand why: money. Let’s sweep all that saving-the-world stuff off the table for a second. On a purely commercial level, e-mobility firms know that greenness underlies their entire marketing appeal. It’s in their direct financial interest to hammer down the carbon cost of batteries as far as possible.

And that they’ve been doing. In 2019, a report by IVL Sweden showed new batteries engender two-thirds less carbon than those two years prior. And by the end of this decade, this will be squashed even further. One way is by streamlining production in ‘gigafactories’ that run on renewable power. Another is battery recycling, already instated by many carmakers, including Tesla. When, for example, the Tesla Model S battery is recycled, at least 70% of the battery materials are reused.

Outside of manufacturing emissions, EV batteries are associated with many sticky issues, from metal extraction to disposal. The worst of these, like child labor and water pollution, have inspired well-traveled memes that stoke doubts about sustainability. But the industry’s working on it. A report by Transport and Environment shows that a mix of recycling and new battery technologies will dampen the demand for materials. It also gives crucial context about disposal: While around a fifth of a battery’s metal weight goes to landfill, this is around 300–400 times less than the weight of fossil fuels burned during the average lifetime of an ICEV.

Lifecycle emissions tilt the scales

Whatever your political lean, everyone loves clean air. And the flashing headline here is that EVs have no tailpipe emissions. No tailpipes either, in fact. They’re the Manx cat of the road (google that, it’s worth it). This virtue alone should arc across the political aisle: EVs offer a deep solution to road pollution, an issue that has blighted public health for the better part of a century.

Another nugget of misinformation often takes the form of a sarcastic chortle: “Where do you think electricity comes from? Gas!” Well, sorry Rusty, this is mostly untrue, as most countries with mature EV markets now lean on renewable energy to generate electricity. This means the lifecycle emissions of an EV — the emissions linked to the car’s rolling electricity use — directly depend on the country’s energy mix.

So essentially, EVs are as green as the electricity that powers them. In countries like Sweden or France, both big on renewable and nuclear energy, average lifetime emissions are 70% lower than ICEVs. But in the UK, this sinks to 30%—not as impressive, but still a heavy improvement.

Want one figure to tie this all together? Collaborative research from the universities of Exeter, Nijmegen and Cambridge shows that driving an EV is better for the environment 95% of the time, excluding places like Poland, where electricity is still based on coal. Greener fuel and zero tailpipe emissions are reasons why any early lead of ICEVs is quickly lost, and EVs emerge the climate winners.

And stepping away from metrics for a second, EVs have a natural kinship with environmentalism. Part of this is logistical; they can charge at night, when electricity demand is lower. But importantly, they can also grow alongside, and even incorporate, green technologies. Solar-powered cars, for example, are hitting the market soon—and you can bet your hat they’re not ICEV.

The future is electric

While EVs currently win out over time, soon they will from the get go. This is due to a swelling collaborative spirit in the e-mobility and cleantech industry. Working at Chargetrip gives us a close view of the fireworks happening here. Hands are extending across the world, as carmakers, governments, universities, public institutions and startups unite to dissolve industry obstacles.

At the same time, the fossil fuel industry is shrivelling. This is no bad thing: while oil created the modern world, it came at a devastating environmental price. But here, EVs represent a throbbing opportunity to finally depart from this legacy. And if the e-mobility industry can sustain its current trajectory, that might just happen.