We’re twenty years in since the first iPod, so it’s safe to say we’ve learned a thing or two about letting go. More than anything, we’re ready to let this one go: whether electric cars emit more CO2 over their lifetime than combustion engine vehicles. The answer is a definite no.
If electric cars are powered by clean energy, they’ll emit 90% less CO2 in their lifecycle than their conventional counterparts. We consulted a recent report from the European Environmental Agency (EEA) to learn what can be done so electric cars can maintain a wonderful, low-carbon life—once and for all.
Here’s our breakdown.
The production of electric cars
The energy requirements for raw material extraction, processing, and production of lithium-ion (electric car) batteries mean that the largest carbon footprint occurs during the production stage of electric cars.
How to reduce carbon emissions in the production stage:
Design smaller cars. We can hear you thinking, “That seems less comfortable.” And sure, that may be if you’re looking to carry three kids and a dog in the backseat. However, keep in mind that the bigger the EV, the bigger the battery it needs, the more electricity it takes to charge, and the more costly and polluting the car will be. Size truly matters when we’re talking about carbon reduction.
Make smaller batteries. This one is in line with the suggestion above. As opposed to carmakers battling against each other in coming up with the highest range and biggest battery size, it would help their production costs (and your wallet) if “lighter” cars with a smaller range are also manufactured. We sense your range anxiety but keep calm—even the smallest electric cars today can cover your daily commute between work and home.
Use less catalysts, copper, and aluminium. These are all high-risk materials within the supply chain of car production—reducing reliance on them would be nothing but good news.
Use clean energy.Looking at Tesla, you see that this is often achieved by moving battery manufacturing to places where the large-scale generation of renewable energy is already in place, such as in China, South Korea, and Japan.
The largest potential reduction in carbon emissions, however, occurs when electric cars are actually in use. This stage can more than offset the carbon emissions produced during raw material extraction and the car manufacturing phase. So, hang tight—we’re taking the electric car for a ride.
Driving and charging electric cars
An electric car, using electricity generated solely by an oil-fired power station, uses two-thirds of the energy of a petrol car travelling the same distance. Although an electric car powered in this way still ultimately burns the same amount of fuel as the petrol car it replaces, it will burn through much less of that fuel.
Countries like Poland and Germany have significantly more carbon-intensive power generation (due to their reliance on coal plants). Using the Polish average, an electric car emits 25% less CO2 over its lifetime. In Sweden—home of one of the cleanest energy mixes in the EU—an electric car emits 85% less than a diesel car. Looking at the average European electricity mix, electric cars emit 17-30% less than diesel and petrol vehicles.
Example of car sharing: Daimler AG and BMW Group have joined forces to introduce car sharing across 30 cities.
How to reduce carbon emissions during the use stage:
Introduce more electric car-sharing services. Shared mobility allows for the testing of (new) electric car models, which has proven to reduce range anxiety. This in turn could change people’s expectations of electric vehicle range and promote the use of “lighter” vehicles overall.
Provide better access for cyclists and pedestrians. This may sound counterintuitive since we’re talking about cars, but it doesn’t hurt to swap your car for your legs at times. Numerous cities worldwide have been designed around personal vehicles. Now, people are figuring out how to give the city back to its citizens. This has already resulted in more sidewalks and bike paths, as well as public gardens that are often a reclamation of former roads, train tracks, and tunnels. Some cities (Oslo being the most recent example) have even taken it a step further by introducing carless districts.
Build more charging infrastructure. We can’t stress enough how much charging network density and charging times will change the preconceptions around the range and comfort of electric driving. A recent EU Directive has called on all EU countries to introduce at least one publicly accessible charging station per ten electric vehicles by next year. Although this target has already been reached (current status = one charging port per nine cars), the average is only due to the Netherlands—the EU country with the most AC charging ports by far, and Norway—which has the most DC charging ports by a landslide. If electric cars hit the expected market share of 40% by 2030, the number of public charging stations will need to reach 14 to 30 million—as opposed to the 632,000 public chargers worldwide in 2018.
Charge with clean energy. The cost of clean energy is decreasing thanks to fast-declining storage and production costs. By 2020, solar and wind energy will become the most economical new-built option across multiple regions, outcompeting existing fossil capacity by 2025. Meanwhile, all public charging ports in northern Europe are already partially or fully powered by wind energy. Even for countries that don’t have this clean energy mix at their disposal, electric vehicles will not contribute much to the global energy consumption: EVs account for less than 1% of the total electricity generation—even if the number of electric vehicles on the road doubles.
Charge with energy efficiency. What we’re referring to here is Smart Charging. Smart Charging is an umbrella term for technical functionalities and devices that help charging stations balance the load, avoid high peaks of electricity usage, store excess power, and reduce burden on the electrical grid. Such technologies help charging stations put their best foot forward, even if there’s a limited capacity on-site. Our answer to energy efficient charging, is EVBox Smart Charging—the name pretty much says it all. Here’s how it works.
When electric cars retire…
The end-of-life stage for electric cars has the smallest impact in terms of total lifecycle emissions. Perhaps that’s also why much of this stage is still unclear (insert sad violin here). The most logical step, however, would be for the industry to move toward a circular economy where electric car batteries, components, and/or materials will be reused and remanufactured. We’re saving this topic for another time.
Example of circular economy: Nissan reuses old car batteries from the Nissan LEAF to power up streetlights. The batteries recharge every night using the streetlight's built-in solar panels.
We’re not here to prove the EV skeptics wrong, rather to bring potential solutions to light. This will hopefully inspire the industry to make the right decisions, and (potential) EV drivers, like yourself, to understand the facts behind electric cars. Though some solutions seem more impactful than others, we paid specific attention to the ones that are both lucrative for the manufacturer and attractive for the owner. Because, let’s be honest, for the industry to embrace change, we need solutions that are sustainable AND profitable.
One thing is certain for now: by the time an electric car is ready to retire, it will have significantly reduced carbon emissions throughout its life. That’s something for a carmaker to be proud of and for everyone to feel good about.