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 88.

    Surely nuclear batteries based on plutonium dioxide like the one that powers the Mars rover are the way forward

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    @ 57.AndyDaines

    "And for pity's sake stop calling carbon dioxide pollution. Plants thrive on it: The discredited global warming debate (if you could ever call it that) was only ever a tax scam."

    No, it is not a tax scam. Please listen to the unbiased scientists who look at the facts. Human activity has created huge carbon release which was otherwise locked up deep underground.

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    Finally some research into the blindingly obvious; if the majority of our energy comes from burning fossil fuels, using electric cars is just a more inefficient way of converting that energy into motion.
    There are no catalytic converters on coal fired power station emmission stacks. Never mind the energy required to electrolise battery acid.
    "Zero emmisions" is fraudulently misleading.

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    Two days we were talking about petrol/diesel (consumption dropped by 10% in Q2) and there were a lot of positive comments on the use of electric cars to combat fuel prices and make it environmental friendly. Back to square one?

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    The best thing you can do for the planet is to go vegan, not fly or drive at all and not have kids - I've tried all four and then decided since I wasn't having kids I was fed up going without for other peoples' kids'.
    Say what you like at least I tried.

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    To Showroyd - you mention growing the population - that is the REAL green issue, the problem is not cars or planes THERE ARE TOO MANY PEOPLE, when we tackle that one or at least accept it, then we can save the planet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    The public need access to information that shows the true CO2 ramifications. This must include the CO2 emissions of the factory producing the vehicle, the shipping of the vehicle, the tailpipe emissions and the level of emission needed to recycle the product at the end if life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    This is silly news. Anything battery-powered can only be as green as its electricity source. Electric cars are, in-and-of-themselves, neither good nor bad for the environment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    no your maths are not correct it is about 10k hours not 160k so you are out by about 18 1/2 years

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    And what do they do? They recirculate the exhaust gas back into the engines air intake via an EGR, which then fails and has to be replaced at extortionate cost.

    It's all about making money, the CO2 thing is a massive money spinner, encouraging us to spend spend spend to be socially acceptable & green, is just irresponsible. We have limited resourses, make stuff that lasts longer!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    I do not agree with the massive subsidies given by Government to the few who want a second "electric car" for their wives.They can never be considered a serious motorist's car.The increase in fuel costs,road tax and running costs is reducing consumption and mileage without their introduction.Even with the subsidy they are prohibitively expensive- taking more man hours to earn the money to buy one

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    What an extraordinarily misleading title!

    How completely bogus ... and sadly typical ... of the BBC lately.

    The issue is power generation and usage ... any usage.

    Not just electric cars.

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    #54 v00doo_chile
    Oh but you're so wrong! Or maybe you were just to lazy or stupid to read the article?
    The cars themselves are a major problem, the materials used in their manufacture use up more irreplaceable resources than do conventional cars, they cause more GHG to be produced, they are much more difficult to dispose of or recycle.
    Their use of energy is also very inefficient.

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    Oh god there are still some people out there that believe global warming is a conspiracy scam? Okay please tell me how an over 98% concensus of thousands of scientists who have deep specialisation in the field of climate are WRONG because Jimmy average thinks that it isn't real and just quotes long since disproved facts. If you don't know what your talking about than don't bother debating.

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    Run nuclear power stations at full power all the time and turn surplus power into stored hydrogen for all road transport and as a supplement to shale gas for heating. Be self sufficient and export the surplus.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    First we need to educate ourselves.
    So that we are not taken in by car makers fads.

    Second we need to educate ourselves.
    So that we can take informed decisions about energy and energy sources.

    Third. TGIF. Enough about education. The week end is almost upon us.

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    100 miles 8 hrs charging. 200,000km, =approx 160,000hrs charging Ok my maths are not exact but I'm sure some one will correct me. Either way. 20 yrs worth of charging to do 200,000km. Doesn't make sense.

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    Way to grab readers' attention with a misleading title.

    Admittedly, "Electric cars 'pose environmental threat', but not in the UK or in Europe, so don't worry about it" doesn't quite have the same ring...

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    What is required is town electric cars or a tram system that removes poluting buses. in our bigger cities first. long distance elec cars are a non starter because of the worry of being able to get a top up, or recharge. streesful motoring

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    Can't wait for Jeremy Clarkson's comments on this!


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