Battery electric cars emit less greenhouse gases and air pollutants over their entire life cycle than petrol and diesel cars, according to a European Environment Agency (EEA) report. Promoting renewable energy and circular economy—including the shared use of vehicles and product design that supports reuse and recycling—will help maximize the benefits of shifting to electric vehicles, according to the report.
The EEA report ‘Electric vehicles from life cycle and circular economy perspectives’ reviews current evidence on electric cars’ impacts on climate change, air quality, noise and ecosystems, compared with conventional cars.
Across its life cycle, a typical electric car in Europe produces fewer greenhouse gases and air pollutants compared with its gasoline or diesel equivalent, according to the report. Emissions are usually higher in the production phase of electric cars, but these are more than offset by lower emissions in the use phase over time.
The report finds that the greenhouse gas emissions of electric vehicles, with the current EU energy mix and over the entire vehicle life cycle, are about 17-30% lower than the emissions of gasoline and diesel cars. However, as the carbon intensity of the EU energy mix is projected to decrease, the life-cycle emissions of a typical electric vehicle could be cut by at least 73% by 2050.
The largest potential reduction in GHG emissions between a BEV and an ICEV occurs in the in-use phase, which can more than offset the higher impact of the raw materials extraction and production phases. However, the extent to which the GHG emissions advantage is realised during the in-use stage of BEVs depends strongly on the electricity mix. BEVs charged with electricity generated from coal currently have higher life-cycle emissions than ICEVs, whereas the life-cycle emissions of a BEV could be almost 90% lower than an equivalent ICEV using electricity generated from wind power. In future, with greater use of lower carbon electricity in the European mix the typical GHG emissions saving of BEVs relative to ICEVs will increase.—“Electric vehicles from life cycle and circular economy perspectives”
For local air quality, electric vehicles also offer clear benefits, mainly due to zero exhaust emissions at street level. However, even electric vehicles emit particulate matter from road, tire and break wear, the report reminds. Shifting to electric vehicles could also reduce noise pollution, especially in cities where speeds are generally low and traffic often stands still.
BEVS can offer local air quality benefits due to zero exhaust emissions, e.g., nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter (PM). However, BEVs still emit PM locally from road, tre and brake wear, as all motor vehicles do. For local PM emissions, there is a great deal of uncertainty and variation in the results, depending on the assumptions made around ICEV emissions and on the different estimation methods for non-exhaust emissions. In addition, electricity generation also produces emissions.
Here, the spatial location of emissions is important. Where power stations are located away from population centres, replacing ICEVs with BEVs is likely to lead to an improvement in urban air quality, even in contexts in which the total emissions of the latter may be greater. Under these circumstances, the contribution of power stations to regional background levels of air pollution, which also affect the air quality in cities, will probably be outweighed by a reduction in local emissions. As the proportion of renewable electricity increases and coal combustion decreases in the European electricity mix (EC, 2016) the advantage in terms of air quality of BEVs over ICEVS is likely to increase in tandem.—“Electric vehicles from life cycle and circular economy perspectives”
The result of the comparison is less favorable for electric cars when looking at the current impacts of their production on ecosystems and the toxicity of the materials involved. These impacts are mostly due to the extraction and processing of copper, nickel and critical raw materials. The report suggests that these impacts could be minimized through a circular economy approach that facilitates reuse and recycling—especially of batteries.
The EEA has also published a new briefing on the environmental and climate impacts of transport. According to the briefing, the sector’s greenhouse gas emissions have been increasing in the EU since 2014. Preliminary estimates for 2017 put EU transport emissions at 28% above the 1990 levels, indicating that the sector is currently not on track to meet its long-term climate goals.
Transport also continues to be a significant source of air pollution, especially of particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide, and the main source of environmental noise in Europe, the briefing notes.
Other key findings:
Preliminary data show that average CO2 emissions of new passenger cars in the EU increased by 0.4% in 2017. This was the first time the average emissions increased since the monitoring started in 2010. By contrast, average CO2 emissions from new light commercial vehicles continued to fall in 2017, showing the largest annual decrease (7.7 g CO2/km) since 2012.
Registrations of battery electric vehicles increased by 51% in 2017, comprising 0.6% of all new registrations in the EU. Registrations of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles increased by 35%, comprising 0.8 % of new registrations.
In 2017, gasoline cars became more popular (53% of new registrations) than diesel cars (45%) for the first time since the monitoring started.
Reducing oil consumption in transport remains a challenge, and the EU’s share of renewable energy in transport is still well below the 10% target set for 2020, taking into account only biofuels complying with specific sustainability criteria. So far, only two EU Member States (Austria and Sweden) have reached the 10% target.