Electric cars better for the planet; but production still damaging, says EEA

A pair of Teslas on Hong Kong's Queen's Road Central, January 2015

A pair of Teslas on Hong Kong’s Queen’s Road Central, January 2015

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 Electric vehicles from life cycle and circular economy perspectives which reviews evidence on electric cars’ impacts on climate change, air quality, noise and ecosystems, compared with conventional cars.

Already now, across its life cycle, a typical electric car in Europe produces less greenhouse gases and air pollutants compared with its petrol or diesel equivalent. 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 confirms 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 petrol 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.

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, tyre and brake wear, the report reminds (although Tesla’s Elon Musk recently addressed brake wear, claiming “Brake pads on a Tesla literally never need to be replaced for lifetime of the car.” in a December 26, 2018, tweet.)

Shifting to electric vehicles could also reduce noise pollution, especially in cities where speeds are generally low and traffic often stands still.

Production impact on ecosystems

The result of the comparison between EVs and traditional cars is less favourable 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. Industry studies also suggest that in the key Li-ion battery manufacturing locations of China, South Korea and Japan, around half of the GHG emissions arise from energy use in cell manufacture, says the report.

The EEA identified key stages in battery production identified as being especially energy intensive, namely electrode drying and operating drying rooms during cell manufacture The report suggests that these impacts could be minimised through a circular economy approach that facilitates reuse and recycling — especially of batteries.

The EEA also warns that China’s monopoly on production materials may increase supply chain risks. China is overall the most significant actor, in terms of production and exports and imports of raw materials used in electric vehicle drivetrains and electronics, accounting for 70% of the global supply of critical raw materials (CRMs). For the EU, China provides 62% of the total supply of CRMs, including 40% of the EU supply of neodymium, praseodymium and dysprosium and 69% of natural graphite. “The dominance of the market by one country creates a supply and economic risk. Having significant control over the price of materials, the dominant actor can increase prices at any moment, an economic risk for buyers of these materials,” warns the EEA.

Transport not on track for climate goals

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, petrol 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.
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