Electric cars & pollution: facts and figures

5 min read
Mar 20, 2018 9:00:00 AM

To mitigate the unprecedented effects of the climate crisis, modern societies present decarbonisation as a key solution. Decarbonisation refers to the process of reducing the amount of harmful carbon dioxide (also called CO2 emissions) that we put into the atmosphere. 

This blog post focuses on what role electric vehicles can play in the decarbonisation revolution. We’ll also focus on debunking some harmful myths, like the idea that electric vehicles pollute more than standard combustion engines.

Fact: EVs cut emissions in transportation

There is a lot of misinformation out there about the pollution caused by electric cars. For instance, one of the most common arguments against electric vehicles is that their production results in higher emissions than manufacturing internal combustion engine (ICE) cars.

The production of electric car batteries is — like any other human activity — taxing on the environment. Mining and processing lithium and cobalt for batteries causes production processes with a more significant environmental impact. Fortunately, leading companies in the industry are already deploying solutions to reduce the impact of EV battery production on the environment. Besides, EVs compensate for these high production phase emissions with low tailpipe emissions when compared to similar EVs and ICE cars.

Another common complaint is that the batteries in electric cars make them very heavy and, as a result, more likely than conventional cars to wear out the road beneath them and cause harmful particles to enter the air.  However, the particulates from road surfaces shouldn’t be confused with particles that cause health problems. Most of the small particles that get into the lungs and bloodstream — and cause complications for humans — come from combustion engines, not our roads.

Figure: EVs already have a 58% lower lifecycle impact than ICE cars

A lot of studies set out to discover whether or not EVs are more harmful to the environment than ICE cars. Carbon Brief, for instance, compared the impact of driving 150 000 km in Europe with an ICE car vs. the 2019 Nissan Leaf. The results speak for themselves; EVs (the equivalent of 128g of C02 emission per km) pollute twice as less than the average ICE car (258g of C02 emission per km).

Source: Carbon Brief.

They pushed the explanation further showing that, if building and selling an EV generates an evident spike in emissions, the trend reverses towards the end of the third year of use vs. an ICE car.

Source: Carbon Brief.

When considering more sustainable ways to produce batteries, we reach a lower impact. For instance, a Tesla Model 3 running with a US-made battery will only account for an equivalent of 108g of CO2 emission per km. That’s 58% less than a conventional ICE car.

Source: Carbon Brief.

Fact: Recycling can balance the emissions required to produce EVs

When determining the environmental impact of anything, factors must be looked at holistically. In the case of EVs, this means that the seriousness of these production emissions decreases when we look at their low overall environmental impact.

Recycling materials is one way to decrease the lifecycle emissions of electric vehicles. Here again, facts can debunk false beliefs.

The European Union is actively encouraging EV suppliers to find ways to recycle and reuse EV batteries, and the industry is being quite responsive.

For instance, Tesla has been recycling all used batteries for a while. When the Tesla Model S battery is recycled, at least 70% of the battery materials will be reused.

Other giant manufacturers such as Renault, Nissan and Volkswagen are also recycling EV batteries

Fact: EVs improve air quality

Clean, breathable air is something that many of us take for granted. However, those who face the reality of pollution daily know firsthand the repercussions of poor air quality.

Now, driving an electric vehicle does not contribute to the release of harmful CO2 into the atmosphere. This is one of the main reasons large urban areas such as Delhi have decided to only sell electric vehicles as of 2030 (EU settled for 2035). Carbon dioxide emissions are something that affects us all — not just the vehicle owner. Less Co2-emitting vehicles on the road mean better air quality and a more enjoyable city-dwelling experience for all. 

Figure: One-fifth of Europe's greenhouse gases come from the transportation sector

Unfortunately, this is true.

Transportation is a field where all consumers can make an impact with their decisions. The long-term goal is to power electric transportation only with renewables. Coal-powered electric cars are not green, but they surely are one step closer to a decarbonised world. Investments in lock-in technologies, such as ICE cars, force us to stick with those for decades.

Fact: EVs reduce noise pollution

While it’s true that air pollution is a problem worth worrying about, did you know that noise pollution can have a surprisingly adverse effect on human life as well? Not only does an excess of noise make our cities unpleasant to live in, but consistent loud noise has also been linked to heart, sleep or cognitive problems.

The transportation sector is mainly responsible for the noise pollution that most of us encounter daily, and while planes and trains do account for some of this, the vast majority is due to road vehicles. This noise causes an innate stress reaction in humans, and we all know how terrible stress can be for us

Electric vehicles make some noise when wheels interact with pavement, but they’re relatively silent compared to conventional cars with engines that rev and rave.

Figure: Over 100 million Europeans are affected by noise pollution every day

100 million is a significant number.

This means that there are 100 million people in Europe every year at risk for the physical health issues mentioned above, not to mention the degradation in their general quality of life. The sooner our cities are predominantly filled with electric vehicles, the sooner we will all get to experience a quieter, more peaceful urban existence.  

And it’s not just cities, either—anyone who has spent time in rural areas knows the sound of a heavy vehicle with an old engine. The electric vehicle revolution will create less stressful environments for everyone, no matter where you live.

Fact: Electric vehicles are a part of the bigger picture when solving the climate crisis

As more and more industries switch over to being powered by electricity in the interest of the climate crisis, the electricity demand will become much greater.

The increase might be so pronounced that our current grids find it hard to keep up. 

Having said that, electric vehicles will play a part in stabilising the grid thanks to smart charging and, most importantly, vehicle-to-grid solutions. On the one hand, smart charging makes it possible to find the optimal time to recharge when the demand on the grid is lower. V2G technology, on the other hand, turns electric cars into batteries on wheels by making it possible to transfer the energy stored in batteries back to the grid.

Figure: Almost 85% of investments in renewables were spent on solar and wind power

While renewable energy is an excellent thing for our planet, it’s worth noting that both of these energy types are dependent on the weather and, as a result, somewhat volatile. Electric vehicles can step in and play an essential part in storing and distributing reliable electricity that wouldn’t harm Earth. 

(Good) change is around the corner

What all studies tell us is that the increase in popularity of EVs is a good thing. What’s more, with electric cars getting closer and closer to reaching price parity with ICEs every day (by 2025, we expect 1 in 5 new vehicles sold is going to be electric), we expect the electric vehicle trend only to keep expanding.

One thing is certainly clear—what’s good news for our planet is also good news for us.