September 5, 2019 | Vivian Zhou
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 most wonderful, low-carbon life—once and for all.
Here’s our breakdown.
The energy requirements for raw material extraction, processing, and producing of lithium-ion (electric car) batteries have the largest carbon footprint during the production stage of electric cars.
The largest potential reduction in carbon emissions, however, occurs when electric cars are actually in use. This stage can more than offset the higher impact of the raw materials extraction and the car manufacturing phase. So, hang tight—we’re taking the electric car for a ride.
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 is still ultimately burning the same fuel as the petrol car it replaces, it is burning 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.
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 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.
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