Electric cars’ lifetime CO2 emissions half that of petrol and diesel

Electric cars’ lifetime CO2 emissions half that of petrol and diesel
Electric cars’ lifetime CO2 emissions half that of petrol and diesel

Battery electric vehicles in the UK produce half the CO2 of a traditionally fuelled car, even when their battery production is taken into account, according to new research.

A study from Imperial College London has found that the increased use of renewable and low-carbon energy generation in the UK means that, on average, charging an EV produces just a quarter of the CO2 emitted by a petrol or diesel engine.

Taking into account the production of an EV’s battery as well the CO2 emissions associated with charging it over its lifetime, the study found an EV’s CO2 contribution was around half that of an equivalent internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle.

It also suggested that the “decarbonising” of the UK’s electricity supply could reduce their environmental impact further.

Winners and losers

The research found charging an EV in the UK produced a quarter of the CO2 of running an ICE car for the same distance. (Photo: Shutterstock)
The research found the CO2 contribution of charging an EV was a quarter of that of an equivalent ICE car. (Photo: Shutterstock)

There has been a lot of debate about how the whole-life energy costs of building and running an EV compare to an ICE vehicle, largely related to battery production and producing the electricity to recharge them.

The research was commissioned by biomass and low-carbon energy producer Drax Electric Insights to look at how changes in the UK’s energy production would affect EVs’ environmental impact, as well as comparing electric cars’ impact against ICE equivalents.

It found that after two to three years the lack of tailpipe emissions from the most efficient EV models would have balanced out the CO2 emitted in their battery production. However, it also found that not all EVs are as clean as each other.

Read more: Real-world running costs of EVs revealed

It showed, predictably, that smaller cars with smaller batteries, such as the Renault Zoe and Nissan Leaf balanced out their production emissions far quicker than larger vehicles with greater capacity batteries. The biggest luxury EV models, such as the Tesla Model S and Jaguar I-Pace, were found to take up to three times longer to pay back their carbon cost, with the battery production of the worst offenders using more CO2 than 15 years’ worth of recharging. They did, however, still contribute far less CO2 than an equivalent ICE car.

Renewable growth

According to the study, the decarbonising of the UK’s energy production is helping make EVs cleaner over their lives by reducing the CO2 produced to charge them.

On June 30, wind, solar, biomass, and hydro met 55 per cent of the country’s electricity demand and CO2 emissions from electricity production have almost halved since 2015. The Imperial College researchers estimate that if the move towards low-carbon energy sources continues at the same pace, in five years’ time an EV bought today could be emitting 10 per cent of the CO2 of an equivalent petrol car.

Large, longer-range EVs such as the Jaguar I-Pace take far longer to 'pay back' their production carbon footprint. (Photo: Jaguar)
Large, longer-range EVs such as the Jaguar I-Pace take far longer to ‘pay back’ their production carbon footprint. (Photo: Jaguar)

Dr Iain Staffell of Imperial College London said: “EVs have real potential to reduce our carbon footprint and help meet our net-zero carbon ambitions – despite some speculation about how clean they really are.

“An electric vehicle in the UK simply cannot be more polluting than its petrol or diesel equivalent – even when taking into account the upfront ‘carbon cost’ of manufacturing their batteries.

“The carbon content of Britain’s electricity has halved in recent years and keeps on falling, whereas conventional engine vehicles have very limited scope to reduce emissions over their lifetime

“Any EV bought today could be emitting just a tenth of what a petrol car would in as little as five years’ time, as the electricity it uses to charge comes from an increasingly low-carbon mix.”

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