How Electric Cars Help Tackle Climate Change

While I was visiting Germany this summer I talked to friends and family about electric vehicles. Several friends told me they read or heard electric cars were not cleaner than conventional cars. Mostly because of the battery. This made me curious, and I did some digging. I found vastly varying numbers and quite some drama. Here it goes…

In a nutshell, over a 15 year timeframe electric cars emit half the emissions of conventional cars. Here is how project drawdown puts it: Transport emissions account for 23 % of all carbon dioxide emissions. Electric vehicles have half the emissions and if they are charged with renewable energy, they can have 5% of the emissions of a conventional car.

If 16% of total passenger miles was done with electric cars by 2050, 10 gigatons a of carbon dioxide could be avoided.

https://www.drawdown.org/solutions/transport/electric-vehicles

On average, electric vehicles emit half of the emissions of conventional cars over a lifecycle of 15 years. That includes manufacture, fuel and charge cycles, and tailpipe emissions. Let’s take a look at how the numbers break down.

The picture compares the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions. The top row shows a conventional car, the bottom row an electric one. The numbers assume the cars are driven 150.00 kilometers.

Batteries for electric vehicles are a challenge. They produce a lot of emissions and use rare earth minerals such as cobalt. Their mining is dangerous, often exploits miners, and destroys habitat for already endangered animals (yes, I dressed up as Okapi last Halloween).

The hope is to advance battery technologies so they need no or less rare earth minerals and to extract and recycle the ones already on the market.

Now we get to the drama part. The numbers vary vastly depending on what cars you compare, where the electric battery is produced, and what energy you use to recharge your car.

A recent report from researchers in Munich claimed electric vehicles were worse for the environment than diesel cars. What? I nearly fell off my chair when I read that. The article was debunked immediately from media outlets and bloggers such as Wirtschaftswoche (german), CarbonBrief or electrek. But articles like that don’t help public perception or electric vehicles. What a drama…

So, next time I talk to people about electric vehicles I have my numbers straight. Electric cars are at least half as clean as conventional cars. And let’s hope all these amazing teams working on sustainable batteries succeed soon!

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