Are Electric Cars Better For The Environment?

Hyundai Ioniq 5 renewable energy source

With rising petrol prices and an increasingly engaged population on the topic of climate change, interest in electric cars has never been higher.

One of the most common questions being asked is, “Are electric vehicles better for the environment?”. Generally, yes, but it also depends on several factors, mainly: how much you drive and how you charge. In this article, we’ll break down these key factors and examine what the carbon footprint of an electric car and how it compares to a petrol equivalent.

Environmental Impacts Of Electric Cars

EVs are often labeled as zero-emissions transport because no carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are emitted while it is being driven aka as zero tailpipe emissions. This however only tells part of the story when it comes to EVs and their impact on the environment. To truly capture the environmental impact of an electric car we need to look at what goes into it from ‘cradle to grave’. Known as the “life cycle assessment”, this considers all aspects of a vehicle’s life:

  • production;
  • operational use (driving it); and
  • when it gets scrapped.

How Does Electric Car Production Affect The Environment?

While the tailpipe emissions of electric cars are zero, it does not factor in the embedded carbon emissions from the manufacture of the cars.

According to a transparency report by Volvo Cars, the initial manufacturing carbon footprint for its petrol XC40 SUV is around 37 per cent less than the pure-electric XC40 Recharge, mostly due to the manufacturing process required for its nickel-manganese-cobalt (NMC) batteries.

However, over the luxury SUV’s 200,000km life cycle, their carbon dioxide footprints inverse to 58 tonnes (petrol XC40) and 54 tonnes (XC40 Recharge EV) powered using a global average grid electricity mix. The EV’s impact drops to 27 tonnes if using renewable wind electricity to charge the SUV.

It takes the all-electric XC40 Recharge to drive 146,000km until it ‘breaks even’ the carbon footprint of the petrol XC40, or just 47,000km when charged using wind energy. There is also the running cost savings for EV owners and reduced impact on public health to consider.

Overall, the most significant adverse environmental impact of electric cars comes from it's production.

Impact Of Electricity Required To Fuel An Electric Car

The electricity source used to charge an electric car has a profound impact on how ‘clean’ its operation is. Due to the efficiency of electric cars and our increasingly cleaner grid, the carbon footprint of an electric car will almost always be lower than a petrol or hybrid equivalent. How much lower depends on the source.

In Australia, different states have varying levels of renewable energy generation, impacting how much 'cleaner' the electricity used is compared to petrol. For example, If you're in New South Wales (NSW) where renewable energy comprises 20 per cent of total energy sources, it will be 39 per cent cleaner. In Tasmania, where renewables comprise 83 per cent of total energy, emissions will be 87 per cent lower. If you’re charging from solar panels, it doesn’t matter where you are, it’ll be 100 per cent clean, making your electric car truly zero emissions in operation.

Overall, one of the key environmental benefits of an electric car is the energy source and how it can be made cleaner through increasing renewable energy generation.

Impact Of Electric Cars Vs. Petrol Cars

Electric cars hold three key advantages compared to their petrol equivalents when it comes to their general operation.

1. Zero-tail pipe emissions - In addition to being carbon and emission-free, electric cars also do not produce any particular matter. Notice that black soot emanating from diesel cars, these particulate matter is released into the air we breathe.

2. Reduced braking pollutants - Braking pollutants and the replacement cycle for brakes is significantly reduced due to the use of regenerative braking in electric vehicles. In fact, it is not uncommon for EVs to generate up to 25% of their energy from regenerative braking in day-to-day urban driving.

3. Flexible Use of the battery - Presently EVs can be used as a sponge to maximise utilisation of renewable energy generation. In the future, we'll be able to use EV batteries like stationary home batteries through bidirectional charging technology and reduce reliance on fossil fuel production when the sun isn't shining.

About the author

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Danny Thai

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Danny is a consultant and entrepreneur working at the cutting edge of the electric vehicle and energy transition. He is passionate about educating and helping consumers make better decisions through data. He is the founder of zecar and is currently the EV Innovation Manager at Endeavour Energy.

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