Are Electric Cars Better for the Environment?


Transport makes up a whopping 26% of all UK carbon emissions – it’s the highest polluting sector in the UK economy! Obviously, something needs to change and the government has made ‘electrification’ the cornerstone of their transport decarbonisation strategy. But do electric vehicles really deserve their green champion status? And are they really as green as they seem?

Critics argue that the emissions from the manufacturing process, as well as the emissions resulting from electricity generation (we still have coal power plants!), mean that electric vehicles do not deliver the carbon reductions that are promised.

There are also concerns around the mining practises involved in extracting battery materials (particularly cobalt), as well as the fate of the battery at the end of its life.

There is truth in these arguments. Everything we manufacture, transport or power has a carbon footprint. And so, yes, although EVs have no tailpipe emissions, they still cause carbon to enter the atmosphere during their lifecycle.

However, we need to ask, are electric cars better for the environment? and carefully consider the answer, especially when we compare them to petrol and diesel cars.

EV environment 1

The impact electric cars have on the environment

There is no denying the fact that electric cars are greener than standard petrol and diesel cars. However, EV technology is still in its relative infancy (at least when compared to petrol and diesel cars), so there are still plenty of advancements waiting to happen. That means, EVs are not perfect – but they are better.

While EV drivers aren’t putting oil and petrol in their vehicles – they are charging them with electricity – and where does our electricity come from? Power plants that are predominantly powered via fossil fuels. However, if your energy provider supplies renewable energy you will of course be able to charge your EV with green energy.

Are electric cars good for the environment?

Electric cars do create a smaller carbon footprint than other vehicles, even when you take into consideration charging, manufacturing, emissions and battery production/scrapping. A study by the University of Cambridge found that EVs are better for the climate in 95% of the world.

Battery powered

All EVs have powerful batteries, and require them to get you from A to B. It’s these batteries that are an EVs largest emitter, and the main reason why some argue that EVs aren’t greener than other cars – or at least not as green as they claim to be.

To produce a battery, raw materials are needed which need to be mined, then produced and transported in what is a lengthy, expensive, and energy-inefficient process.

However, once the production of the battery is complete, an EV does become far greener. Over the course of its life, an electric car is undoubtedly better for the environment than petrol and diesel cars.

Always improving

EV battery production is an ever-changing industry. While they’re not where they want to be yet, it’s only a matter of time. After all, EV battery production is as much as three times cleaner today than it was just two years ago.

Why are electric cars better for the environment?

We’ve already addressed the elephant in the room surrounding the battery of an EV. However, there are many reasons why an electric car is better for the environment. These include:

Electric cars don’t produce exhaust emissions

Electric cars don’t have an exhaust, because they don’t produce emissions. Once a battery is in your car and fully charged, your vehicle won’t produce emissions of any kind, and will not contribute further air pollution.

Standard petrol and diesel cars produce emissions whenever the engine is switched on, while EVs only (indirectly) produce emissions while being charged.

Less overall emissions

While it’s true that power plants are powered by fossil fuels, the emissions produced charging an EV battery are by far less than the emissions produced by a standard internal combustion engine. However, that also doesn’t take into account that many EV charging stations, and home charge points, use renewable energy.

Green materials

Because some EVs aren’t yet capable of the same high-performance that can be produced by their equivalent internal combustion engine, EV manufacturers have to get creative. In order to produce the same speeds and a better range, heavier materials have been switched out for greener, environmentally-friendly materials that are more sustainable.

Electric cars vs petrol and diesel cars

According to data from the European Environment Agency, the emissions produced by an electric car are between 17 – 30% lower than those produced by a petrol or diesel car.

Petrol and diesel are also more likely to fluctuate in price than electricity. And of course, there is only a finite amount of fossil fuels left on Earth. Once the world runs out of petrol and diesel, we will still be able to produce electricity, whether it be generated via solar, wind, nuclear, or other means.

EV environment 2

Are hybrids also better for the environment?

Yes, hybrids are better for the environment than petrol and diesel cars, however they’re not as green as electric cars. By combining fuel with electricity, they do produce lower emissions, but they do produce emissions none-the-less.

Can there ever be such a thing as a zero emissions car?

Unfortunately, at least for the moment, the answer to that question is no.

While many EVs don’t produce exhaust emissions, they do contribute toward the use of fossil fuels both in the production of the batteries, and using fossil fuel generated power when they’re charged.

Only when these two (pretty key) factors have been sorted and overcome will an EV be truly able to claim they produce zero emissions.

But for now, there are plenty of cars that come relatively close. And, of course, EVs are still by far better for the environment than petrol and diesel cars.

The greenest thing you can do is to not own a car… 

If your lifestyle allows, then you should always try to walk, cycle or use a car-sharing service. 

But, for the vast majority of us, a car is an unavoidable necessity of life… 

So, what can we do?

The argument in favour of EVs is not that they do not have a carbon footprint. But, rather that their carbon footprint is significantly less than petrol/diesel cars.

Take a look at the chart below (if you dislike graphs, ignore and I’ll explain what it shows):

Life cycle emissions of EVs in Europe

Basically, the CO2 emissions of ‘conventional cars’ in Europe (shown by the two left columns) are considerably higher than electric cars in Europe. That’s largely caused by the ‘tailpipe’ emissions (the blue bit). None of the electric car columns have any tailpipe emissions.

The only unfavourable comparison is between the ‘most efficient‘ conventional cars (second column from left) and electric cars in Germany (fifth column from left) where the fuel cycle emissions are high.

By comparing the average though, we can see that, at the moment, EVs produce around half the total carbon emissions of a petrol or diesel car.

EV environment 3

Is this enough?

This is perhaps a little underwhelming given the green champion status of EVs…

But, it’s important to remember:

Every gram matters. If you can half your emissions by going electric, then we think that’s a good start! 

It will only get greener. As the UK electricity grid becomes greener through the expansion of renewable energy, so will the manufacturing and charging of electric vehicles become significantly greener. 

EVs help the power system. Electric vehicles act as flexible energy demand, meaning demand can be turned on when renewable energy is abundant and off when renewable energy is scarce. This is really important in getting more renewable energy onto the grid. 

Air quality matters too. Cities in the UK are suffering an Air Quality crisis and EVs are Zero emission.

At elmo…

We believe that electric vehicles are an important next step on the path to a greener future. But it’s only right to admit that there is still work to be done.

That’s why we only offer 100% renewable electricity and include carbon offsetting in our all-inclusive car subscriptions. These extra measures help us account for all emissions from elmo vehicles, so we and our users can drive electric with peace of mind.

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