Electric vehicles (EVs) are regarded as a key component of any climate change mitigation strategy, for four reasons.
First, EVs reduce our dependence on fossil fuels like petrol and diesel. Second, they cause less noise and air pollution, thus helping to clean up our cities. Third, they stimulate the development of electricity storage technologies. Fourth, they offer individuals the opportunity to get involved in climate action and reduce their carbon footprint, by choosing battery electric vehicles (BEVs) or plug-in hybrids (PHEVs).
Of course, an electric passenger car, bus or truck, is only as “green” as its source of electricity. An EV powered by coal-generated electricity is nothing like as green, as one powered by electricity from organic biomass and biofuels, solar power, hydropower (hydroelectricity), geothermal energy, offshore and onshore wind power or tidal energy.
Nevertheless, evidence now shows that all EVs (including hybrids) are better for climate change and the environment than conventional internal combustion vehicles (ICVs).
In this article we examine the environmental advantages supposedly offered by EVs, as well as the challenges that need to be overcome if electric cars are going to make their piston engine counterparts obsolete. We also take a quick look at future trend predictions for the electrification of transport. For hydrogen-powered EVs, see: Hydrogen Energy: Tomorrow’s Clean Fuel.
Switching To Electric Vehicles: Why The Urgency?
Unchecked emissions of heat-trapping gases could trigger several climate tipping points by the end of the century, which could be catastrophic.
Unfortunately, more than three-quarters of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions come from the burning of fossil fuels – chiefly from coal-burning power stations, and from internal combustion vehicles used in the transportation industry. 1
EV’s are powered by electricity which can be generated from a wide range of sources. Right now fossil fuels dominate. Roughly 74 percent of global electricity is generated from coal, its precursor peat, oil and petroleum and natural gas, as well as nuclear energy. 2
But renewable energy sources are slowly catching up. More power than ever before is being generated from renewables such as solar power, offshore and onshore wind power, organic biomass, geothermal energy, tidal or wave power, hydro-power, or any combination of these.
Electricity generated by renewable resources is called clean energy. In an ideal future world, all EV’s will run on clean energy.
Another motivation for the switch to EV’s is due to the growing scourge of smog in urban areas, caused by ground-level ozone from tailpipe emissions. As electric vehicles have no tailpipe emissions, it should considerably reduce the environmental effects of fossil fuels like petrol and diesel.
The European Union, Japan and South Korea, along with more than 110 other countries, have committed to carbon neutrality by 2050. It means that half of the world’s GDP and half of its CO2 emissions are now covered by a net zero commitment.
In addition, in order to boost the manufacture of zero-emissions vehicles, bans on the sale of new non-electric vehicles have been proposed in China, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Slovenia, UK, Japan, South Korea, Iceland, and Canada.
The switch is being supported by government subsidies, more investment in battery charging infrastructure, as well as growing consumer awareness of the effects of global warming – especially after the dramatic Australian bushfires of 2019-20.
Electric Vehicles: The Statistics
Electric vehicle sales surpassed 2 million vehicles in 2019, representing a 2.5 per cent share of all new car sales (1 in 40 of all cars sold). 3 China accounted for nearly half of all sales, followed by Europe and the United States.
The Covid-19 pandemic affected all car sales globally in 2020, but generally speaking the course seems clear for growth over the next decade. However, the recovery for EV sales will tend to be slower when oil prices are lower and consumers take advantage of associated savings.
Interestingly, in the United States, the electric vehicle market is almost solely driven by the success of the Tesla Model 3 – which is responsible for almost half of all EV sales in the country. 4
In China, sales are being driven by government subsidies and investment in charging infrastructure. There is also continued focus on encouraging Chinese manufacturers to produce and market EVs.
Transport modes other than cars are also electrifying, with the emergence of electric buses, scooters (e-scooters), electric-assist bicycles (e-bikes) and electric mopeds now available in over 50 countries worldwide.
Are Electric Vehicles Better For The Environment?
Are electric vehicles beneficial for our climate system and environment, and, if so, to what extent? This is a complex issue with many differing reports and viewpoints. The consensus, however, is that electric vehicles are markedly better for both climate change and the environment.
The main debate centers on three issues: (a) emissions (b) batteries and (c) electricity.
(a) EV Manufacture & Running Emissions
When you drive an electric car, it emits no greenhouse gases or dirty exhaust fumes.
However, the car and battery still have to be manufactured. And this manufacturing process does cause emissions. In fact, EVs produce more emissions than conventional cars during production. At present, EV-manufacture generates between 15 and 65 percent more emissions, depending on size of the car.
Why are the manufacturing emissions of electric vehicles so much higher than those of petrol/diesel vehicles? The answer is, because of the battery. EV batteries require considerable resources – from raw materials to shipping and assembly – and these generate significant extra emissions. (For more on this, see Carbon Footprint of Battery Production, below.)
That said, the situation changes as soon as an EV hits the road. EVs ‘repay’ their carbon debt and reach carbon parity with petrol and diesel cars after about 23,000 km (14,000 miles).
In the case of an EV with a battery produced and run on clean electricity, the excess carbon debt would be paid back after less than one year of driving, or about 13,000 km (8,000 miles). 5
In other words, in a life-cycle assessment, electric cars fare much better than their diesel or petrol counterparts.
A recent report by Carbon Brief concludes “EVs are responsible for considerably lower emissions over their lifetime than conventional (internal combustion engine) vehicles across Europe as a whole.” 6
A report by Transport & Environment concludes that “the latest evidence shows that an average EU electric car is already close to three times better than an equivalent conventional car today.” For example, a new Nissan Leaf EV bought in the UK in 2019 would have lifetime emissions some three times lower than the average new conventional car.
What’s more, with EU electricity grid decarbonization, electric cars will become even cleaner in the next few years – roughly 4 times cleaner than conventional equivalents by 2030.
(b) Carbon Footprint of EV Batteries
The carbon footprint of batteries needed to power electric vehicles is quite high, at this point in time. Researchers at the Swedish Environmental Research Institute (IVL) now estimate that battery manufacturing emissions are actually between 61 and 106 kg CO2-equivalent per kWh, with an upper bound of 146 kg. Emissions are based on the mining and refining raw materials that happens off site, as well as the actual manufacturing process where the battery is assembled. Emissions are split about 50/50 – half the lifecycle emissions are a result of off-site material production and half result from electricity used in the manufacturing process.
Manufacturing emissions are usually higher in Asia than in Europe or the United States, because of the widespread use of coal for electricity generation in the region. Asia (China, Japan, Korea) currently dominates the EV-battery market. In 2018, 97 percent of total global demand for EV batteries was supplied by these countries and less than 1 percent was supplied by European countries. 7
All this implies that factory location and electricity mix has a huge effect on the carbon footprint of EVs. Even within the EU there is disparity. Sweden has a very low carbon electricity grid based on renewable energy, whereas Poland’s coal-rich electricity grid produces high carbon electricity.
In the United States, Tesla produces all its own batteries used in the Model 3 vehicles in their gigafactory in Nevada. Nevada has nearly phased out all its coal-based generation in the past few decades and on average its electricity grid is 30 percent lower in carbon intensity than the US average.
What Is A Gigafactory?
It’s a new term! A gigafactory refers to the new factories which are producing batteries for electric vehicles on a gigantic scale. The term was first attributed to Elon Musk who used it to describe the gigantic factory Tesla are building in the Nevada desert – which, spread over several floors will have a floor space of about 121 acres or 5 million square feet. Since then other manufacturers have announced the construction of gigafactories in other parts of the world, including two in France by French battery manufacturer Saft.
(c) Sources of Electricity Used
A transition from conventional petrol and diesel vehicles to EVs is going to play a very significant role in mitigating the effects of global warming on humans by lowering emissions. But this can only happen if the electricity used to power the batteries is clean energy.
Everything hinges, therefore, on the rapid decarbonization of the electricity used, both in the manufacturing stage, and in recharging the vehicle.
In the United States for example, there is a wide variation in the sustainability or cleanness of the power used. In some states, like Vermont, the electricity is generated mostly from renewable sources. But in others, like West Virginia, coal still dominates.
If countries do not replace coal – and, to a lesser extent, natural gas – with renewables, then EVs will still be a long way from being ‘zero emission’ and will not reap the full benefits of renewable energy.
Emissions from Electricity Generation in Selected Countries
|Country||CO2 Emissions per KWh Electricity|
|Australia (West Coast)||498g|
|India (Uttar Pradesh)||684g|
|Australia (East Coast)||750g|
Electric Vehicles Improve Air Quality
It is often stated that electric vehicles are not ‘zero emission’ – which is true, as we have just seen. However, they do have zero tailpipe emissions, which means no dirty exhaust fumes causing smog pollution in urban towns and cities. Here’s a quick round-up of EV benefits for clean air.
Particulate matter is all the tiny particles of stuff floating around in the air. They are emitted by conventional internal combustion engines, notably those in diesel vehicles.
These tiny partially-combusted particles of black carbon and other material, can cause respiratory and cardiovascular disease including asthma, choking, lung irritation, pneumonia and influenza. For details, see: Health Effects of Air Pollution.
They are also a major contributor to smog in cities across India, Pakistan, Vietnam and China. They also contribute to the so-called Asian brown cloud which materializes annually over India and China.
NOx and SOx
Nitrogen oxides (NOx) and sulfur oxides (SOx) are two other gases emitted through fossil fuel combustion. Both are exceptionally unhealthy air pollutants. Conventional gasoline cars emit both NOx and SOx, but EVs emit neither.
Bottom line: by switching to an electric vehicle, you are also helping to reduce the emission of harmful pollutants that cause so much disease and death around the world.
Electric Vehicles Emit Less Noise
Environmental pollution includes noise. The relative quietness of an electric vehicle allows a reduction in the noise levels around us. And in case you’re worried that EVs are too quiet for safety reasons, manufacturers have added noise to them which they emit when travelling at low speed.
Electric Vehicles Cause Less Plastic Pollution
From a mechanical perspective, brakes and tyres wear out much slower on EVs because of better traction control. One of the leading causes of microplastics in the ocean comes from tyre wear. Every year, 100,000 metric tonnes of microplastics are shed from tires, transported through the air and dumped in the ocean. Another 40,000 tonnes comes from brakes. 8
Challenges for Adoption
As the study below shows, there are several concerns consumers currently have about electric vehicles which are causing a barrier for adoption.
EV Prices Are Higher
Consumers are unwilling to pay a premium for EVs, and so the upfront cost remains a major concern. Despite government subsidies, EVs are still more expensive than their combustion engine counterpart. The battery is the single most costly element of an EV, making up 35-45 percent of the total cost. 7
Fortunately, just at the moment, prices are coming down, although things may change if precious metals like lithium and cobalt become scarcer due to excessive demand. Meantime EV’s have lower annual running costs which means consumers can save money over a period of time. In 2020 China cut government subsidies for EVs, which caused price-sensitive consumers to respond less positively as a result.
EVs Have Limited Range
Electric vehicles typically charge from conventional power outlets or dedicated charging stations. This process can take hours, although it can be done overnight, and gives a charge that is enough for normal everyday use.
Thanks to advances in battery technology, EV range is improving rapidly and can now exceed 400 km (250 miles) to 600 km (400 miles), depending on the model of car. 9
However, in reality an EV’s actual driving range is generally much shorter because of how it is driven, the use of air conditioning, or the number of passengers, as well as the need to retain a safety margin before the next charge 10.
This means that the range of an EV is in practice far shorter than that of a petrol or diesel car, which can be anywhere between 1,000 and 1,700 kilometers (700-1,100 miles). 11
Some environmentalists suggest that people should become accustomed to taking trains for longer journeys and reserving their cars for shorter range, everyday driving. (Clearly, these avid environmentalists do not enjoy touring holidays in SUVs (or camper vans) across Europe or the United States.)
Range anxiety is a term of the times, which has arisen because owners worry that they won’t have enough battery power to reach their destination and could end up stranded. (How right they are!) General Motors filed the trademark ‘range anxiety’ a few years ago.
Lack of Charging Infrastructure
While the infrastructure for electric-vehicle charging continues to expand, the numbers of chargers in public spaces is still mostly insufficient to convince consumers to switch to EV.
In 2019, there were about 7.3 million chargers worldwide, of which about 6.5 million were private, light-duty vehicle slow chargers in homes, multi-dwelling buildings and workplaces. 3
Private firms involved in building the infrastructure are mainly focused on electrifying urban areas where the financial return is bigger, leaving rural communities behind (much in the same way broadband role proved to be). In order to boost driver confidence in EVs, it will be essential that infrastructure is spread evenly around the country.
One of the effects of Covid-19 on climate change, has been to focus government attention on ‘green’ investments. Germany designated $2.8 billion for EV charging infrastructure and announced new legislation that will oblige all fuel stations to have an EV charging point, as part of their Covid recovery plan. 12
China made similar commitments, announcing an additional $378 million investment in charging infrastructure. 13
Precious Metals In Short Supply
In every electric vehicle battery, there is a complex chemistry of metals – cobalt, lithium, nickel, graphite and manganese. The electrification of transport is transforming the demand and supply of these raw materials. Traditionally battery demand used to be dominated by consumer electronics. Now, with the advent of electric vehicles, demand has skyrocketed and is putting pressure on supplies.
The price of lithium has tripled since 2015, and global cobalt production in 2025 will likely need to be double that of 2016 production to satisfy global EV demand. 14 It remains to be seen whether current reserves of lithium or other similar metals will be sufficient to meet global demand for EVs. Some calculations suggest these may last less than 20 years. 15
Presently, raw material costs make up less than 20 percent of total battery pack cost. 14 However, while battery prices have been coming down due to manufacturing efficiencies, raw material prices have being going up, and so has their share of the total price of a battery.
Unless battery technology can become more streamlined, EV adoption targets may be difficult to achieve.
However, there is innovation in the industry. Extremely long life batteries entered the market in 2020. They allow car batteries to hold their value long enough to be resold when owners trade in their cars, possibly for use storing solar electricity for homes. This could change the math for the price conscious consumer.
Electric Vehicles: Future Prediction Trends
One in 5 passenger cars sold globally by 2030 will be battery electric vehicles (BEV), according to McKinsey Consulting. Furthermore, they predict global sales of BEV passenger cars will overtake those of internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles by 2040.
As governments look to improve pollution and air quality in inner cities, 1 in every 10 buses sold globally will be electric by 2026. Likewise trucks. One in every 10 trucks sold globally will be BEV by 2030. 14
Deloitte expects that by 2030 China will hold 49 per cent of the global EV market, Europe will account for 27 per cent, and the United States will hold 14 per cent. 16.
Beyond 2030 EV sales are expected to slow down. This is because poorer nations will not be able to transition in the same way due to lack of adequate investment. Electrification infrastructure requires multi-billion-dollar capital investments – achievable in some markets through a combination of public and private investment, but unlikely to be achieved uniformly around the world. In such countries, petrol and diesel cars will continue to dominate for some time.
- “Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions” 2017. U.S. Environment Protection Agency.
- IEA Global Energy & CO2 Status Report (2019)
- Global EV Outlook 2020
- “Tesla scores 77% of US electric auto sales in November”, Cleantechnica June 2020.
- How clean are electric cars? T&E’s analysis of electric car lifecycle CO₂ emissions. April 2020. www.transportenvironment.org/sites/te/files/downloads/T%26E%E2%80%99s%20EV%20life%20cycle%20analysis%20LCA.pdf
- Fact Check: How electric vehicles help to tackle climate change. 2020
- “Recharging economies: The EV-battery manufacturing outlook for Europe.” Mckinsey.
- Atmospheric transport is a major pathway of microplastics to remote regions. By N. Evangeliou, H. Grythe et al. Nature Communications volume 11, Article number: 3381 (2020)
- Electric vehicles – range of selected models 2020
- S. Greaves et al “An empirical assessment of the feasibility of battery electric vehicles for day-to-day driving,” Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice, vol. 66. 2014.
- “How far can UK’s most popular cars travel on a full tank of fuel? Results may surprise you.” Daily Express, May 15, 2019.
- “Germany will require all petrol stations to provide electric car charging”, Reuters June 2020.
- “Electric cars take the spotlight in China’s post-coronavirus stimulus plans”. June 2020
- “Metal mining constraints on the electric mobility horizon.” McKinsey & Company 2018
- “Is There Enough Lithium to Maintain the Growth of the Lithium-Ion Battery Market? Are we nearing peak lithium?” Tam Hunt. GreenTechMedia.com June 2, 2015.
- Electric Vehicle Trends 2030, Deloitte