Electric cars 'pose environmental threat'

Electric plug in a Tesla Roadster Electric car production creates much carbon emissions as well as toxic pollution

Electric cars might pollute much more than petrol or diesel-powered cars, according to new research.

The Norwegian University of Science and Technology study found greenhouse gas emissions rose dramatically if coal was used to produce the electricity.

Electric car factories also emitted more toxic waste than conventional car factories, their report in the Journal of Industrial Ecology said.

However, in some cases electric cars still made sense, the researchers said.

Big impact

The team looked at the life-cycle impact of conventional and electric vehicles.

In essence, they considered how the production, the use and the end-of-life dismantling of a car affects the environment, explained co-author Prof Anders Hammer Stromman.

"The production phase of electric vehicles proved substantially more environmentally intensive," the report said, comparing it to how petrol and diesel cars are made.

"The global warming potential from electric vehicle production is about twice that of conventional vehicles."

In addition, producing batteries and electric motors requires a lot of toxic minerals such as nickel, copper and aluminium.

Hence, the acidification impact is much greater than that of conventional car production.

"Across the other impacts considered in the analysis including potential for effects related to acid rain, airborne particulate matter, smog, human toxicity, ecosystem toxicity and depletion of fossil fuel and mineral resources, electric vehicles consistently perform worse or on par with modern internal combustion engine vehicles, despite virtually zero direct emissions during operation," according to Prof Stromman.

'Counterproductive' efforts

Start Quote

A battery electric vehicle, with electricity produced by the power generation mix we currently have in Europe, compares favourably in the magnitude of 10% or so with diesel”

End Quote Dieter Zetsche Chief executive, Daimler

With electric car production being so damaging to the environment, these cars have already polluted a great deal by the time they hit the road, the report says.

However, if the cars were then powered by electricity made from low-carbon electricity sources, they could nevertheless offer "the potential for substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and exposure to tailpipe emissions" over time.

However, in regions where fossil fuels are the main sources of power, electric cars offer no benefits and may even cause more harm, the report said.

"It is counterproductive to promote electric vehicles in regions where electricity is primarily produced from lignite, coal or even heavy oil combustion."

European benefits

In Europe, where electricity is produced in a number of different ways, electric cars do offer environmental benefits when compared with cars with internal combustion engines, according to the study.

"Electric vehicles powered by the present European electricity mix offer a 10% to 24% decrease in their global warming potential relative to conventional diesel or petrol vehicles."

This is in line with calculations made by some carmakers.

Drax Cars powered by electricity produced in coal power stations pollute more than petrol or diesel cars

"According to our results, a battery electric vehicle, with electricity produced by the power generation mix we currently have in Europe, compares favourably in the magnitude of 10% or so with diesel," Daimler's chief executive Dieter Zetsche told the BBC.

Longer lives

The report pointed out that the longer an electric car in Europe stays mobile, the greater its "lead" over petrol and diesel engines.

"Assuming a vehicle lifetime of 200,000km exaggerates the global warming benefits of electric vehicles to 27-29% relative to petrol and 17-20% relative to diesel," it said.

"An assumption of 100,000km decreases the benefit of electric vehicles to 9-14% with respect to petrol vehicles and results in impacts indistinguishable from those of a diesel vehicle."

An electric car's longevity depends a great deal on how long its battery lasts, not least since it is very expensive to replace them.

Batteries are gradually getting better, which could result in electric cars being used for longer.

However, as petrol and diesel engines are also improving, the relationships between the different types of vehicles are not constant.

"A more significant reduction in global warming could potentially be achieved by increasing fuel efficiency or shifting from petrol to diesel," the report said.

"If you are considering purchasing an electric vehicle for its environmental benefits, first check your electricity source and second look closely at the warranty on the batteries," said Professor Stromman.

Those in power, meanwhile, should recognise "the many potential advantages of electric vehicles [which] should serve as a motivation for cleaning up regional electricity mixes".


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  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    Old news, it's just been brushed under the carpert for years.....

    I maintain that the best way to help the environment and conserve resources, is to keep the car you have for longer. Cars used to last 15-20 years, these days most people change them every 2 years and they start falling apart before 5 years. They're designed to fall apart, even in warranty.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Doesn't matter either way. Electric cars aren't good enough for the vast majority of us yet and nor will they be until they can run several hundred miles off a charge and then not need 8 hours to recharge.

    I feel the future does not contain electric cars

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    I was wondering when people would twig that much of this "green" energy is actually made in a polluting power station.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    I'm not in the least surprised at these findings as I've questioned the "green" aspect of producing electric vehicles for years, especially with regard to their batteries.
    I doubt many will reach 100,000km in their lifetime either, as their main use will inevitably be for short journeys.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.


    Electric cars are unlikely to make us independent from the big energy supplier

    Electricity currently comes from coal or atomic power stations (big suppliers, CO2 emissions, dangerous).

    Use cooking oil that is grown sustainably. Makes us independent from the big oil industry, moves jobs to poorer countries.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    According to wikipedia 57% of economic exports from Norway are Crude oil and Gas. No vested interested there then...

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    Someone has finally realised that, unless the electricity is from a 'green' source, anything running on electricity may not be as green as believed!

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    We knew this. How did you imagine we thought electricity was generated?However, taking the long term view, if we can crack nuclear fusion, hence producing produce cheap, clean electricity, then electric cars make a lot of sense.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    For electric car read betamax video. They're less green than ordinary cars partly because of manufacturing process's which have a large carbon footprint, then look at batteries. If you're lucky, will last 7 years and cost thousands to replace. Then of course the electricity still needs to be produced for them so fueling them still has a large 'footprint'.
    Invest in hydrogen, it's the way forward.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Battery technology is improving all the time and with the advent of the electric car, "green batteries" are bound to be a focus area for research. However politicians also need to look at the wider picture and find ways to reduce the number of car journeys we make each year - for example by making public transport an attractive option (rather than just taxing the motorist out of existence)

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    This is not a new argument! However, fossil fuels are becoming a scarce resource. Electricity can be generated from renewable sources where as petrol and diesel cannot (Bio fuel is simply not viable on a large scale). The answer is surely to put more money into renewable electricity production, battery technology and manufacturing to reduce this excess CO2 from electric cars.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    What a pathetic premise for a headline. Presumably, on the same principle, if you run an car on electricity produced by incinerating cute animals and cuddly toys then the emotional damage to children of electric cars is significantly worse than petrol cars?

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Just goes to prove that all of these 'do gooders' really haven't the foggiest. "Up to twice as polluting". Do us all a favour and weigh in your pointless environmentally damaging electric car at the scrap yard and buy a proper fuel efficient car. The people who buy these electric cars are just sheep - no clue.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    HA! thats what you get for going "green"
    Top gear proved hybrids/electric cars are not emissions friendly..its not what you drive, its how you drive. Just hopefully toyota will scrap making Prius'

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Pretty much agrees with the "dust-to-dust" lifetime appraisal that was published when the Toyota Prius was first launched.

    Surely it is better to retain older vehicles, repairing and upgrading them as necessary, and thereby reduce the impact of the construction of new vehicles and disposal of the old.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    The only pollution problem we should be worried about with cars is the localised effects in cities. Electricity certainly helps here. If CO2 bothers you, get behind the nuclear industry or go and live on an island with no resources.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    I would think it is safe to say that anything man-made will pose an enviromental threat.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    This was obvious for a long time for anyone with even a modest intellect. The same is true of wind farms.

    if you want clean energy, then go for large scale tidal barrages, hydroelecric, and work towards nuclear fusion.

    If you want clean cars without batteries, then hydrogen cars with the hydrogen produced using clean electric.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    What a load of utter tosh.
    The sensible thing with electric vehicles is to charge using PV.
    Coal fired production? Nuclear? Are they mad?

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Build nuclear power stations to provide a staedy supply of electricty, buy electric cars, re-charge them overnight, use wave wind hydro tidal to supplement and use fossil fuels as slowly as possible - as they'll run out eventually. Also stops having to pay big bucks to arabs - who seem intent on spending it on arms to kill each other


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