According to experts, the lifetime emissions of electric vehicles are lower than those of gasoline vehicles

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An electric vehicle charging station in Stoke-on-Trent, England.

Nathan Stirk | Getty Images News | Getty Images

The number of electric vehicles on the world’s roads is increasing rapidly and reached a record level in the past year.

That seems like good news as the world tries to wean itself off fossil fuels that are destroying the global climate. But as electric cars become more popular, some are wondering how environmentally friendly they are.

The batteries in electric vehicles, for example, are charged with electricity that comes directly from the power grid – which itself is often powered by fossil fuels. And the question arises of how energy-intensive building an electric vehicle or battery is compared to building a comparable conventional vehicle.

Are electric vehicles greener?

The short answer is yes – but their full green potential is many years away.

Experts largely agree that electric vehicles leave a smaller carbon footprint than cars and trucks with conventional internal combustion engines over the course of their life.

Last year, researchers from the Universities of Cambridge, Exeter and Nijmegen in the Netherlands found that in 95% of the world, driving an electric car is better for the environment than driving a gasoline-powered car.

Electricity grids in most of the world are still powered by fossil fuels like coal or oil, and electric vehicles rely on this energy to recharge. Regardless, the production of EV batteries remains an energy-intensive process.

The production of electric vehicles causes significantly more emissions than the production of gasoline cars … which mainly come from battery production.

Florian Knobloch

Cambridge Center for Environment, Energy and Natural Resource Governance

A study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Energy Initiative found that producing batteries and fuel for an electric vehicle produces higher emissions than producing an automobile. However, these higher environmental costs are offset over time by the superior energy efficiency of electric vehicles.

In short, the total emissions per mile for battery-powered cars are lower than for comparable cars with internal combustion engines.

“If we look at the current situation, EVs in some countries are even better with the current network,” Sergey Paltsev, a senior researcher with the MIT Energy Initiative and one of the study’s authors, told CNBC.

Paltsev stated that the full benefits of electric vehicles will not be realized until power sources become renewable, and it could take several decades for this to happen.

Read more about electric vehicles from CNBC Pro

“Right now, the electric vehicle in the US would emit an average of around 200 grams of CO2 per mile,” he said. “We assume that by cleaning the network we can reduce the emissions of electric vehicles by 75% from around 200 (grams) today to around 50 grams of CO2 per mile in 2050.”

Similarly, Paltsev said MIT research showed that internal combustion engine non-plug-in hybrid cars currently emit around 275 grams of CO2 per mile. In 2050, their projected emissions will be between 160 and 205 grams of CO2 per mile – the range is greater than that of electric vehicles because fuel standards vary from place to place.

Decarbonization is the process of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels. It is expected that efforts to reduce pollution in various industries will further reduce the environmental impact of electric vehicle production and charging over time.

“If you look forward to the rest of the decade in which we see massive decarbonization in power generation and massive decarbonization in industrial sector, electric vehicles will benefit from all of that decarbonization,” said Eric Hannon, a Frankfurt-based partner at McKinsey & Company. said CNBC.

Batteries are the largest emitters

Electric cars rely on rechargeable lithium-ion batteries to operate. The manufacturing process for these batteries – from using mining raw materials like cobalt and lithium, to manufacturing them in gigafactories and transporting them – is energy-intensive and one of the largest sources of CO2 emissions from electric vehicles today, experts said.

Gigafactories are plants that manufacture EV batteries on a large scale.

“The production of electric vehicles causes significantly more emissions than the production of gasoline vehicles. Depending on the country of production, that amounts to between 30 and 40% additional production emissions, most of which come from battery production, ”says Florian Knobloch, fellow at the Cambridge Center for Environment, Energy and Natural Resource Governance.

These higher levels of emissions from production are viewed as “an initial investment that pays off fairly quickly due to the reduced lifetime emissions”.

China currently dominates battery production, with 93 gigafactory factories making lithium-ion battery cells, up from just four in the US, the Washington Post reported earlier this year.

“I think the battery is the most complicated component in the electric vehicle and has the most complex supply chain,” George Crabtree, director of the Department of Energy’s Joint Center for Energy Storage Research, told CNBC, adding that battery production has a major one Influence on the CO2 balance of electric vehicles.

Batteries made in older giant factories in China are usually powered by fossil fuels, which was the trend five to ten years ago, he said. In other words, electric vehicles that are built using batteries from existing factories

But that’s changing, he said, as “people have realized that this is a huge carbon footprint.”

Experts pointed to further considerations regarding battery production.

These include unethical and environmentally unsustainable mining practices and a complex geopolitical nature of the supply chain where countries do not want to rely on other nations for raw materials such as cobalt and lithium or the finished batteries.

The mining of raw materials needed for battery production will likely be the last to be decarbonized, according to Crabtree.

Recycling and decarbonising the network

Nowadays, very few of the used battery cells are recycled.

Experts said this may change over time as the raw materials needed to make batteries are limited and companies have no choice but to enable recycling.

Hannon from McKinsey outlined other reasons for companies to step up their recycling efforts. This includes a regulatory environment in which manufacturers would have to deal with old batteries by law – and their disposal could be more expensive.

“People who point out a lack of recycling infrastructure as a problem do not realize that we don’t need a comprehensive recycling infrastructure yet because the cars are so new that we don’t need many back,” he said.

Most auto companies are already working to ensure they have significant recycling capabilities before electric vehicles reach the end of their life in the next decade, he added.

It is not a panacea for climate protection. Ideally, you also try to massively reduce the number of cars and try to promote things like public transport

Florian Knobloch

Cambridge Center for Environment, Energy and Natural Resource Governance

Cambridge University’s Knobloch said there is a lot of research going on to improve battery technology to make it more environmentally friendly and less dependent on scarce raw materials. Further efforts are also needed to decarbonise the power grid, he added.

“It is very important that more renewable power generation capacities go into the grid than coal-fired power plants every year,” said Knobloch.

“Nowadays it is much easier to build large-scale solar or offshore wind turbines than to build a new power plant using fossil fuels. We are seeing that more renewable electricity is coming into the grid worldwide. “

However, he pointed out that generating electricity from renewable sources still produces greenhouse gases because the production of solar panels and wind turbines causes emissions. “We’re looking at how long it takes for the power grid to be sufficiently decarbonized that you see a huge benefit from electric vehicles,” added Knobloch.

Politics necessary for social change

Experts agree that a transition from gasoline-powered cars to electric vehicles is not a panacea for the global fight against climate change.

It must go hand in hand with a social change that encourages greater use of public transport and alternative means of transport such as bicycles and pedestrians.

Reducing the use of private vehicles requires a lot of funding and policy planning.

MIT’s Paltsev, who is also the vice director of the university’s joint program on the science and global change policy, said there are currently around 1.2 billion fuel-powered cars on the world’s roads – that number is projected to rise to 1.8 billion 2 trillion.

In comparison, there are currently only around 10 million electric vehicles.

People underestimate how many new cars will need to be produced and how much material will be needed to make these electric vehicles, Paltsev said.

The International Energy Agency predicts that 145 million electric cars, buses, vans and heavy trucks will be on the road by 2030.

Even if all electric cars were to drive instead of gasoline-powered cars, the plug-in vehicles would still cause a lot of emissions due to their volume, according to Knobloch.

“So it is not a panacea for climate protection. Ideally, you also try to massively reduce the number of cars and try to promote things like public transport,” he said. “It is just as important to get people away from private transport by car.”