EVs less polluting than petrol cars, even with dirty grids

New research confirms that EVs have lower lifecycle emissions than internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, even if the grids that charge them are still dirty.

Despite the scaremongering and fear tactics that commonly seek to question and undermine the “clean” credentials of electric vehicles, new research has again demonstrated that EVs continue to have lower lifecycle emissions than internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles.

The research published by global energy analysts BloombergNEF (BNEF) found that, “in all analysed cases”, EVs have consistently lower lifecycle emissions than ICE vehicles, a contrast that will only continue to grow as the decade progresses.

As can be seen below, however, the degree to which EVs are cleaner than ICE vehicles depends on how far they are driven and the amount of renewable energy in the grid used to charge the vehicles.

Currently, according to BNEF, battery electric vehicles (BEVs) are emissions-intensive early in their life due to the current state of battery manufacturing.

Improving the EV manufacturing process – specifically that of batteries – will have an immediate impact on the overall lifecycle emissions of electric vehicles.

Battery recycling is also expected to help reduce emissions, as could on-shoring or near-shoring battery manufacturing so as to reduce emissions associated with transport.

When an EV reaches the road, however, their emissions intensity plummets compared to ICE vehicles, due primarily to the heavy emissions from petrol-fuelled cars.

BNEF looked at five separate global regions – the United States, China, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Japan. Overall, the lifecycle CO2 emissions of a medium-sized BEV manufactured today and driven for 250,000 kilometres would be 21 to 71 per cent lower than those of an equivalent ICE vehicle.

The breakeven point when a BEV becomes cleaner to operate than an ICE vehicle depends on the amount of renewable energy in the grid. For a driver in the US, they only need to travel 41,000km – or around two years of driving – while in China, the distance travelled increases to 118,000km, or around 10 years, due to the country’s fossil fuel-heavy grid.

Looking forward, however, as cleaner energy grids become more common with the increasing levels of renewable energy capacity, the breakeven point will start to shrink.

For a BEV manufactured in 2030, BNEF predicts that a driver in the US will only need to travel around 21,000km to reach the breakeven point, while a driver in China will need to drive for 53,000km.

It’s important to note, also, that – while BNEF’s analysis assumes an average emissions intensity for each region per year – in reality, emissions intensity varies depending on regional energy mixes, and even the time of day that a person charges their car.

For example, an EV driver in California who charges their car during the day will produce half as many grams of CO2 per kilowatt-hour charged as a driver who charges at night – a gap which will only widen by the end of the decade.

Joshua Hill
April 21, 2024
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