Electric cars already have a bigger climate change impact than fossil fuel burning cars in almost every part of the world, according to researchers

Electric cars already have a bigger climate change impact than fossil fuel burning cars in almost every part of the world, according to researchers

By Adam Vaughan
Manufacturing rechargeable electric car batteries produces carbon emissions
Martin Pickard/Getty Images
Electric cars are already greener than their fossil fuel counterparts in almost every part of the world today, according to researchers who say electric vehicles are a no-regret choice even where power grids have not gone fully green.
Some previous comparisons have suggested petrol and diesel cars produce lower net carbon emissions over their lifetime than battery-powered vehicles. But these analyses have often compared just two models of car. Instead, Florian Knobloch at Radboud University in the Netherlands looked at the average emissions across many different classes of cars to get a clearer global picture.
He led a team that found electric vehicles already have lower net carbon emissions in 53 of 59 regions across the world. Only in regions where there are coal-heavy countries, such as India and Poland, were electric vehicles worse than conventional petrol and diesel cars.
The same was true for heat pumps greener alternatives to domestic gas boilers that use electricity to generate heat. These are seen as a key way to decarbonise heating.
The team looked at the carbon emissions generated over a cars lifetime including during its production, while it is being driven, and when it is destroyed for all the conventional and electric cars sold in 59 regions, which represent 95 per cent of the worlds current road traffic.
Combined with data on the sources that provided electricity supplies in those regions in 2015, they found the average electric vehicle would be greener than the average new petrol car if the power grid emitted less than 1100 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt hour.
As many countries electricity supplies have seen big growth in renewable energy sources in the past five years, Knobloch says electric cars likely look even better now. For example, the UKs average carbon intensity for electricity the carbon emissions per unit of electricity generated was 215g CO2/kWh last year, down from 443g CO2/kWh in 2015.
The researchers project that the gap between fossil fuel and electric vehicles will only grow bigger as power grids get greener. By 2030, they expect the average carbon intensity of electric vehicles will be 20 per cent lower than in 2015, and 30 per cent by 2050.
The implications for governments are clear, says Knobloch. There is no need to wait. Theres a net benefit from electrification even given all the uncertainties and variations. Dont be confused by all those different results out there. Its a no-regret choice already.
There is some uncertainty in the study as we don’t have clear data on the true amount of CO2 emissions generated by the production of batteries for electric cars. However, Knobloch says the team found even if you consider much higher or low emission for batteries, our results still hold.
Mike Berners-Lee at Lancaster University says despite the carbon benefits of current electric cars, we will still need to drive less and buy cars with smaller engines to tackle climate change.
But electric cars do offer a carbon intensity reduction compared to petrol cars, in all but the most carbon intense electricity grids, says Berners-Lee.
Journal reference: Nature Sustainability, DOI: 10.1038/s41893-020-0488-7
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