The short answer is no, no they’re not.
There’s been a LOT of misinformation about electric vehicles, with sceptics making all sorts of claims about their environmental values. In 2019, reports in the Guardian amongst other newspapers (based on research by Hans-Werner Simm) came out claiming electric vehicles (EVs) were actually worse for the environment than diesel or petrol cars. That was rather misleading. Even big newspapers get things wrong.
Car production can be energy-intensive:
The majority of emissions produced within an electric vehicle’s lifetime come from their manufacture and assembly – although this depends on where the car is produced. In some cases, more energy is used to create EVs than is used to create conventional (petrol or diesel) internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. Of course, the amount of emissions used in their creation depends on where the energy is coming from… and as we move to more renewable sources, these emissions associated with production are likely to decrease.
Additionally, various rare elements are used in the production of EVs (especially their batteries), with the claim often made that these make them unsustainable. But such rare elements are also required for ICE car manufacturing too! Much research is taking place into how to make battery production more sustainable… and how we can move away from these rare elements.
Although EVs may be energy-intensive to create at the moment, processes for manufacturing them are always becoming more efficient. This is likely to increase as they become more mainstream. The production of EVs has come under a lot of scrutiny, because of their environmental claims. The same level of scrutiny has not occurred for ICE cars.
Day-to-day life – less pollution (in more ways than one):
During day-to-day life, zero greenhouse gas emissions are produced directly from EVs. Additionally, other forms of exhaust emissions are also non-existent. Nitrogen oxides and particulate matter produced by ICE cars can cause damage to human health, negatively affecting air quality – but EV exhausts don’t produce these. EVs do still produce particulate matter from tyre and brake wear, but no more than normal cars. EVs can also reduce noise pollution – although that depends a lot on the vehicle, how quickly it is moving, and also the noises it makes to warn pedestrians of its presence.
When charging an EV, there is lots to consider regarding emissions. EV ‘tanks’ are always filled up using electricity, but this electricity may have been produced in many different ways. Some people charge their EVs using their own solar panels – others stick solely to public charge-points that use renewable energy.
However, if an EV runs only on coal-produced electricity, it may have higher lifetime emissions than an ICE car. But if the EV is charged solely by renewables, its lifetime emissions (which include production) could be around 90% lower than an ICE. As our grids become increasingly reliant on renewables, EVs just become greener!
End of car life:
An additional concern when talking about EV environmental impact is about the end of the cars life. There’s no standard procedure for recycling EV batteries, although some elements can be reused in things like storage for renewable energy. The more we figure out how to reuse and recycle parts of these batteries, the better… and things are already improving. Greenhouse gas production is thought to be very low at this stage of an EVs life.
Another thing to consider is that we’re not sure just quite how long EV batteries will survive. The oldest commercially sold EVs are the Nissan Leaf, which were first produced in 2011. Many of these are still running. Most estimates suggest that EV batteries will last 10-20 years… but most EVs are not that old yet. If these cars are lasting a long time (and maybe even longer than ICE cars), we’ll need to worry a little less about battery disposal.
Overall, EVs produce less greenhouse gases (unless run and produced entirely by coal-produced electricity), no nitrous oxide and less particulate matter than conventional petrol or diesel cars. In some cases, they also produce less noise pollution. In the UK, it’s clear that EVs are the greener choice.
- European Environment Agency – Electric vehicles from life cycle and circular economy perspectives – https://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/electric-vehicles-from-life-cycle
- The Guardian – Are electric vehicles really so climate friendly? – https://amp.theguardian.com/environment/2019/nov/25/are-electric-vehicles-really-so-climate-friendly (content warning… the facts claimed within this are inaccurate)
- Transport and Environment – Yes, electric vehicles really are better than fossil fuel burners – https://www.transportenvironment.org/newsroom/blog/yes-electric-vehicles-really-are-better-fossil-fuel-burners
- Financial Times – Are electric vehicles more damaging than diesel? – https://www.ft.com/content/947ea588-bb2f-46b8-8aa1-f4ebf2ba74ae
- Energy.gov – Timeline: History of electric cars – https://www.energy.gov/timeline/timeline-history-electric-car
- Autotrader – How green are electric cars? – https://www.autotrader.co.uk/content/features/how-green-are-electric-cars?utm_source=consumer_marketing_pola&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=consumer_newsletter_may21_ls&m_i=pAsP_%2BNVz_Yo04Vl1IjGeb8KlOpuqAFYPFy6WbzHSsP3gI%2Bz%2BzG90fiwqPA5Z_kTWsVFTiTNWYOC2kz629FS_WajbmEppx&fbclid=IwAR07lPoVP_LjXVKkcxc5c_WkBSXXrSeAP12aAp1slq21VzDhVkHet8CbWps
- Forbes – Are electric vehicles really better for the environment? – https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesellsmoor/2019/05/20/are-electric-vehicles-really-better-for-the-environment/?sh=34c3d7c76d24