Are electric vehicles truly eco-friendly?

Fully-electric vehicles allow for 100% emission free driving. That’s probably why you are researching them. It’s also why they play an important role in reducing global carbon emissions. The overall carbon footprints of electric vehicles are smaller than those of traditional ones. There are, however, some aspects that need to be considered in the eco-balance sheet and we will address them here.

Charging.

Even if the electricity to charge your electric vehicle battery came from 100% fossil fuels, your car still produces much less CO2 than a petrol or diesel car. That’s because power stations are more efficient in producing energy than car engines. 

Depending where you live, the electric energy in your car may come from 100% renewable energy, or – most likely – from a mix of renewables and fossil fuels. 

In the future, more and more electricity will be sourced green, making electric vehicle charging greener and greener, too. 

Manufacturing.

The carbon impacts of producing the actual car are pretty even when comparing electric with traditional cars. And since the first IONIQ went into production in 2016, Hyundai has been using natural materials such as wood cellulose (fibre) or lyocell (extracted from eucalyptus cellulose) for interior materials (seats and other parts).

However, producing the powerful batteries that take you as far as you want to go is a very energy-consuming process, starting with the mining of raw materials such as nickel, copper, cobalt, graphite and rare earth elements like neodymium and lithium.

Overall, the energy to build a car is far less than the energy used to run it over its life. This means by the time an electric vehicle is just a few years old, it has offset its manufacturing deficit.

Recycling and re-using.

Once the battery in an electric vehicle has degraded to around 70%, it is usually replaced. But since 70% of the battery is still working, they can be re-used for other purposes such as supporting the electric grid of buildings or storing energy from wind or solar electricity sources. recycling is the first of two options available. 

Modern lithium-ion batteries can also be recycled, and their materials are used to make new batteries. 

In the future batteries will become more and more powerful while requiring less and less raw materials to support meeting the global goals on climate change.

Greener than you might have thought.

While building an electric vehicle with its energy intense battery emits more CO2, it can have a smaller overall carbon footprint than traditional petrol and diesel cars. Over a lifecycle of more than 150.000 driven kilometers, the average electric vehicle in Europe emits less CO2 than the most efficient vehicles with internal combustion engines. 

Depending on the national power mix, the CO2 emissions for the production of the fuel (petrol or electric energy) vary across European countries, e.g. Norway produces a lot of energy from hydropower and therefore emits almost no CO2 when generating energy for electric vehicles. On the other hand, countries like Germany or the Netherlands have a more CO2 emitting power mix. But once the electric energy is produced it does not emit additional tailpipe emissions as internal combustion engines do.

So, the more renewable energy is used to produce and charge electric vehicles and the more batteries are recycled, driving an electric vehicle becomes even more eco-friendly.

Life-cycle emissions of electric and conventional vehicles in Europe (Source: ICCT, 2015)

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