Are Electric Cars Better For The Environment?

Electric cars don’t emit greenhouses gases like petrol and diesel cars do, making them better for the environment when driven. However, this isn’t to say that EVs are completely carbon neutral.

Electricity is still largely produced by fossil fuels and a lot of energy is needed to manufacture them, plus there’s questions over how lithium-ion batteries are recycled.

Are you considering going electric? Read on to discover what environmental impact these cars have.

Fewer emissions

Nissan Leaf zero emissions

It’s no secret that driving an EV contributes fewer carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions into the Earth’s atmosphere than typical combustion vehicles. In fact, a recent study by the University of Cambridge found that if every other car on the street was electric, global emissions would be reduced by 1.5 gigatons each year. That’s the equivalent of Russia’s current CO2 emissions.

In the UK, the average car has a fuel economy of 38.8mpg which, travelling 8,000 miles per year produces 3.7 tonnes of CO2. With around 38.7 million vehicles currently licenced in the UK, that’s at least 143,190,000 tonnes of emissions produced each year.

An abundance of greenhouse gases, the main culprit of which is CO2, means that more heat is being trapped into the Earth’s atmosphere. This has resulted in increasing temperatures on our planet and higher concentrations of carbon dioxide are also being linked with extreme weather changes.

Less noise pollution

Nissan_Leaf noise pollution

All electric cars are virtually silent at slow speeds, with the motors that power them able to do so without so much as a whisper. As such, it’s hard to ignore the benefits of reduced noise pollution to the environment, in particular biodiversity.

Standard vehicles tend to produce most harmful noise pollution (generally considered anything above 85 decibels) when stuck in traffic. This is especially true in cities, where car engines and horns produce around 89 decibels.

On the other hand, EVs are powered instantly by a near-silent motor, with only tire noise and wind resistance producing most of the sound they make. In fact, new EU legislation now requires manufacturers to put an Acoustic Vehicle Alert System (AVAS) in each EV produced to ensure pedestrians can hear the car coming. Legally, this has to be at least 56 decibels while 12mph or slower, which is about the same noise produced by a conversation in your house.

Manufacturing an electric vehicle

Tesla_Factory,_Fremont_(CA,_USA)_(8763129679)

Before an electric car hits the road, there are causes for concern over how environmentally friendly its production is.

This includes both sourcing the materials needed to make a standard EV, plus the assembly process once a manufacturer has the parts in the factory.

Sourcing rare Earth elements

A lot of energy is used in order to extract, separate and refine rare Earth elements (REE) needed for production of EVs and their batteries. According to the European Environment Agency (EEA), the greenhouse gases produced at the beginning of an electric car’s life cycle is higher than that of standard cars.

The reason for this is that more REE are used to make these cars, including copper and nickel, which require energy-intensive mining and refining processes in order to extract them.

‘Lightweighting’ electric cars using aluminium

Because electric cars have heavier power components (i.e. the electric motor and lithium-ion battery) compared to petrol and diesel models, manufacturers decided to use more aluminium for building each model.

Known as ‘lightweighting’, this again requires a greater use of mining methods that rely heavily on using lots of electricity and fossil fuels. However, emissions at these power plants are being outweighed by the reduction in pollution when EVs are being used.

What’s more is that more countries, including the UK, are looking to emulate the positive switch to using renewable energy generation for these processes, such as Norway and France.

Battery manufacturing

Lithium-Ion_Battery_for_BMW_i3_-_Battery_Pack

Development of lithium-ion batteries that last around 10 years has been a major breakthrough which has led to most manufacturers making an EV. They can not only be charged at rapid rates, but are also functional, with the average electric car range at 181 miles.

Despite this, there are still concerns over the fact that electric car battery production is responsible for around 40% of greenhouse gases in each model’s life cycle. This includes cell manufacture, cell materials and enclosure. According to the EEA, this is because most EV batteries are produced in countries that have high-carbon-intensity electricity, including China, Japan and South Korea.

Understandably, smaller EVs such as the Renault Zoe and BMW i3 contribute less CO2 per vehicle produced than larger/luxury models such as the Tesla Model X and Mercedes EQC. The difference is around 1.5 tonnes of CO2 emissions.

On the whole, bigger electric vehicles create twice as many greenhouse gases during production compared to smaller models, with 14.9 tonnes and 7 tonnes, respectively.

Emissions from electricity generation

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No greenhouse gases are emitted from an exhaust when you’re driving an electric car. However, particulate matter, sulfur dioxide and other air pollutants do get released during electricity generation for powering them.

Power stations are the main contributor to these emissions, the rate of which varies based on the energy demand of the vehicle and how electricity is generated.

In countries such as Belgium, where electricity is mainly produced by nuclear power (as opposed to the standard method of burning fossil fuels), the impact of emissions from electricity generation was seen to be much lower than that of exhaust emissions from standard cars.

While the UK still burns gas and coal to get its electricity, it’s looking more and more likely that a switch to renewable energy will soon take place. Especially as it was announced in the third quarter of last year that renewables provided more electric to homes and businesses than fossil fuels.

To put it into perspective, an EV which could be charged exclusively with wind power would have emissions of 1-2g CO2/km.

Can electric car batteries be recycled?

Luckily, the answer is yes. Once the battery in an EV is deemed no longer useful for powering a car, it retains around 80% of its charge, which is then used to add more power to the national grid.

Afterwards, the battery is taken to a recycling plant specifically for EVs, where they are safely shredded to separate the different components. This is only if there isn’t any charge left. If there is, then the batteries are frozen in liquid nitrogen before being smashed – that way, they can’t react and produce any harmful chemicals.

Want to find out more about hybrid and electric cars? Then check out our other guides.


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