How much better are electric cars for the environment?

Electric vehicles (EVs) are seen as a key tool in the transition to a greener future. But how much better for the environment are electric vehicles and are they a sustainable solution?

In terms of CO2 emissions over a vehicle’s lifetime — including the manufacturing process — EVs tend to win out over fossil-fuel guzzlers, experts said news weekalthough the picture can be a bit complicated depending on a number of factors including the local energy mix where you live.

“Because electric cars run on electricity, the carbon footprint of driving an electric car depends on where the electricity comes from,” says Vera O’Riordan, a PhD student at the Marine and Renewable Energy Institute at University College Cork, who is modeling low-carbon passenger transport news week.

“The carbon footprint of electricity depends on the fuel mix used in power generation. Electricity from renewable sources is better than electricity from natural gas, which in turn is better than electricity from diesel, which in turn is better than electricity from coal.”

Stock Image: An electric vehicle. How environmentally friendly are electric vehicles?
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A study published last year by the International Council on Clean Transportation that looked at electric vehicles and gasoline cars over their lifetime found that electric vehicles have fewer greenhouse gas emissions over their entire life cycle.

The study found that in the United States, life-cycle emissions from electric vehicles are 60 to 68 percent lower than gasoline cars.

Jeremy Michalek, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University who leads the Vehicle Electrification Group, said news week that, on average, electric vehicles in the United States tend to have a lower carbon footprint than gasoline or diesel cars, although there are exceptions.

A 2016 study authored by Michalek and colleagues includes maps showing that “Plug-in vehicles in general tend to reduce CO2 emissions for city drivers in Southwest, Texas and Florida, especially when compared to a typical one Gasoline cars, while plug-in vehicles tend to increase CO2 emissions for highway drivers in rural areas of the Great Planes, Midwest and South, especially when compared to gasoline hybrids, which are very efficient,” he said.

“However, these cards are from the past. Electric vehicles have an advantage for the future. If the grid gets cleaner, as we expect, electric vehicles will get cleaner too. The most important factor in the lifecycle emissions of electric vehicles is coal phase-out. The more coal that is phased out, the cleaner electric vehicles will look.”

Alan Jenn, a research assistant at the Institute of Transportation Studies’ plug-in hybrid and electric vehicle group at the University of California, Davis, said news week The answer to the question of whether electric vehicles or fossil-fuelled vehicles produce more emissions over their lifetime is somewhat complex, as it depends on two main assumptions.

The first is which car you are replacing with an electric vehicle and the second is where the electricity to run the battery will come from.

“In the most pessimistic studies, EV charging using only coal-fired power would be about the equivalent of a 30-mile-per-gallon vehicle,” Jenn said. “However, most studies typically find that electric vehicles don’t go very far below the equivalent of about 80 miles per gallon in the United States, which is cleaner than any gasoline car on the market today.”

“Even in the worst regions, one of the great benefits of electric vehicles is that the US power grid is getting cleaner and cleaner over time, which only improves these calculations in future projections.”

Can electric vehicles reduce pollution?

According to Jenn, one of the big advantages of electric vehicles over petrol vehicles, apart from CO2 emissions, is the reduction of local air pollutants.

“The burning of fossil fuels not only releases carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas that leads to global warming), but also compounds such as nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and particulate matter (local air pollutants that lead to adverse health outcomes in exposed communities).

“These can be particularly effective for electrifying heavy-duty diesel vehicles and potentially improving air quality in communities that traditionally suffer from poor air quality,” he said.

Michalek also said electric vehicles have the potential to “dramatically” reduce traditional air pollution, but it really depends on the power source.

A charging port for electric vehicles
Stock Image: A charging connector for an electric vehicle. Electric vehicles can help reduce pollution in urban environments.
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There is also the question of manufacturing electric vehicles, which consume large amounts of resources and also cause emissions.

“Electric vehicle manufacturing is generally associated with more air emissions than gasoline vehicle manufacturing, primarily because manufacturing large battery packs is energy intensive and involves emissions from processes such as smelting,” Michalek said.

“But with both electric and petrol vehicles, the majority of emissions come from using the vehicle and not from manufacturing the vehicle.

“Emissions from the manufacture of EV batteries are an important part of the full lifecycle impact, but the use phase is the larger factor, so sourcing electricity to charge the vehicle from a clean source can more than offset the higher production emissions,” he said.

According to Jenn, the local impact and sustainability of material extraction for electric vehicles certainly pose different issues compared to gasoline vehicles.

“Some researchers argue that the benefits of mitigating climate change may outweigh some of these problems, but that certainly doesn’t belie their importance,” he said.

“Many battery suppliers and automakers are trying to improve the sustainability of the battery production process, for example by reducing the use of more problematic materials – such as cobalt, whose extraction faces many human rights issues.”

In any case, O’Riordan said the transition to electric vehicles can only be part of the transport solution if the world is to meet its climate goals.

“As part of our low-carbon transition, there is also a need to avoid travel needs in the first place by reducing demand and enabling a shift towards public transport and active modes of travel. In fact, we must first and foremost design our urban spaces and work cultures in a way that reduces the need for car use and travel in general as much as possible.”

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