Comparing the impact of electric cars with petrol and diesel over time

With all the talk about greenhouse gases, global warming and what we as individuals can do to help make a difference to climate change, it’s worth exploring how electric cars can be good for the environment. The environmental impact of electric cars is a key factor in some people’s decision to switch from petrol or diesel, but how well do they compare?

How green are electric cars compared to petrol or diesel?

Electric cars are greener than traditional combustion engines, but they do still have an environmental impact. This depends on how they are manufactured, maintained and charged and also varies according to the energy production of the country they’re driving in.

Research from Cambridge University has found that electric cars are better for the climate than petrol or diesel cars in 95% of the world. In countries like Sweden and France, where most electricity comes from renewable and nuclear energy, average lifetime emissions from electric cars are up to 70% lower than petrol cars. In the UK, they are around 30% lower.

Exceptions include countries like Poland, where electricity generation is still mostly coal-based instead of coming from renewable sources.

What about the environmental disadvantages of electric cars?

While electric cars don’t emit exhaust fumes, they are an indirect cause of pollution through their production and through the creation of the electricity needed to fuel them, where the electricity comes from non-renewable sources. But as more electricity is generated from renewable resources, the disadvantages of electric cars will reduce.

How does building electric cars affect the environment?

The bulk of emissions produced by electric cars comes from the manufacturing process. Carbon emissions in electric car production can be up to 60% more than conventional vehicles. But once the car is off the production line and running, it has fewer ongoing CO2 emissions. In comparison, petrol and diesel cars continue to create emissions as long as they run.

Do electric cars generate carbon emissions?

Electric cars don’t have an exhaust and so have zero tailpipe emissions but do create some air pollution from tyre and brake particles, as do all road vehicles.

Overall, the advantage of electric cars is that once built, they have noticeably lower CO2 emissions than petrol and diesel cars. According to a 2017 government study, these are the levels of carbon emissions for different types of vehicles:

  • Petrol vehicles are the highest producers of carbon emissions at 211g per kilometre
  • Diesel vehicles emit 179g of carbon per kilometre
  • Electric vehicles produce just 73g per kilometre

From this, you can see that electric cars are considerably better than the alternatives when it comes to carbon emissions after manufacture.

What’s the environmental impact of electric car batteries?

Like traditional car batteries, there are environmental disadvantages to producing electric car batteries. Making an electric car battery takes between six and eight tonnes of CO2 and requires a lot of valuable metals that need to be mined for use.

Mining metals such as lithium and cobalt is a water-intensive process in areas where water might be scarce. Mining metals for car batteries has been linked to soil and water pollution, and there have been questions about poor labour conditions for workers in the extraction of these metals.

The lithium-ion batteries used in electric cars can be an environmental hazard when they are disposed of without care, but they are still less toxic than traditional car batteries.

Can electric car batteries be recycled?

Initially the question of recycling wasn’t being addressed, until the EU Battery Directive (2006) stated that 50% of battery materials must be recyclable. Now over 90% of electric car batteries cells can be recycled however without government policy to mandate this, there is a risk that battery components will be discarded if reusing them isn’t financially beneficial for the recycling company.

With a typical battery lasting up to ten years, there has yet to be a surge in the number of batteries that need recycling and as the number of used batteries grows, new solutions are being developed.

Car batteries are finding a second life as stationary flexible power units for industry or for domestic use. This reuse helps lower the environmental impact of electric cars.

Are electric cars really better for the environment?

Simply switching to electric cars isn’t going to fix all the issues with global warming. A cultural shift will be needed where people are encouraged to walk or cycle instead of taking any sort of car, or to use public transport. A focus on working from home to reduce commuting, buying local produce where possible to cut food miles, and encouraging more climate-friendly housing will all be needed to drive down pollution.

But a step away from petrol and diesel cars is good, and this is an individual action you can take to make a small difference. Choosing an electric car can reduce your carbon footprint, so you can feel good and save money as you drive into an electric motoring future.