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 108.

    Norway has plenty pf hydro-electric power to charge its own electric vehicles, so it does not need to rely on oul, gas or coal to produce the primary energy.

    A lot of its hydro-electric power is used for refining aluminium which is reported aspoluting in that Norwegian report.

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    @ 90
    Diesel is a drity filthy "fuel". It can never be clean, as the particulate filters used, are purged every so often, i.e. het heated up and blow out all that was collected, or the entire filter has to be replaced at 1,000-2,000 pounds a time.
    Diesel isn't the future.

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    Why don't people understand that the power for these cars comes mostly
    from coal and gas powestations and is therefore causing as much,if not more,pollution than petol and diesel cars.
    Just why diesel cars attract less road tax is also stupid as they pollute
    more than petrol with particulates far more harmful.
    Crazy political decisions as usual for public cudos.
    Get rid of them-and politicians!

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    No surprise there! The same no doubt applies to many green energy solutions - windmills, crops, light bulbs - life time analysis will show little or no benefit. Should focus on clean energy sources, dare I say nuclear energy with solutions for waste disposal & decommissioning. Safe use of hydrogen also offers better prospect despite need for electricity to produce - no battery to lug around!

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    The warmest year in the last 50 years, was 1988. Yet it's getting warmer every year???
    It's not called global warming anymore, because too many people got wise to it...... So I ask what the hell is "climate change"???

    You need to realise that saving resources is important, not encouraging fools to buy stuff they don't need, in the name of being "green".
    We are cash cows, nothing more.

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    People are missing the important sentence which is

    "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."

    So yes if you live in China an electric car is not green but if you live in Europe it is? That is the outcome of the study.

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    Araxmas @75,what is it that makes you people so offensive?As is usual for your type you bluff and bluster and quote bogus statistics to prove your point,completely avoiding the well-made point that production of an electric car and replacement batteries cause more environmental damage than the public is allowed to know,like wind farms.Our government is up to its neck in conspiracy and deceit.

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    To make nuclear fusion a reality we would have to plough money into related science for a long period (decades realistically) . I guess it's too late now to ask for a refund on the Olympics so we can use the money doing something vaguely worthwhile and in everyone's interests

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    An interesting article on the environment but why when talking about coal power do reports always prominently show cooling towers that produce nothing but steam – So dangerous to the environment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    Why not have a wind turbine on the top of every car and just raise every bridge in the country by 25ft? Or failing that, a nuclear reactor in the boot would work wonders. Better still, dig trenches in all the roads and have a network of amphibious cars powered by a water wheel!

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    'Little point of replacing all the hyddrocarbon vehicles with electric cars if the overall net result is an increase of emmisions and pollutants. Just think of all those'Just a pound a week'doe eyed third world country children adverts you would have to put up with as you poison half of Bolivia with your open cast mining requirements for Lithium for your lovely clean electric cars in Europe.

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    Lifecycle assessments often produce counterintuitive results, and are quite dependent on where the boundaries of the assessment are set. We are talking here about the bottom of the transport hierarchy anyway. The real discussion should be about 'how do we make public transport more affordable, efficient and accessible for all?'. That's where the real wins lie, not in electric cars.

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    Interesting to find out whether the academics publishing this have been funded by the oil industry. Of course the electricity needs to be generated cleanly, so the focus should be on how to do this, not a specious argument regarding electrically powered cars. I suspect there are several clean technologies available for powering cars that are being sat on to protect vested interests.

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    "Oh god there are still some people out there that believe global warming is a conspiracy scam?"

    Global warming isn't a scam, but what the UN./megacorps/governments are doing in the NAME of global warming IS a scam. It's a BIG scam, it's a scam designed to screw as much money out of people as possible while allowing authoritarianism and nanny-stateism to grow

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    Always a bit suspicious of these kind of reports, this pne coming from a nation highly dependent on oil and gas production. The way forward is renewable energy for electricity production and therefor electric cars the problem is gouvernments and individuals rely to much on the revenue from fossel fuels and linger on the advances that are neccessary to make it possible

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    This article needs to be read with caution. In the UK we get over 30% of our electricity from non-fossil-fuel sources - so this likely makes the conclusions inapplicable.

    For those hydrogen fanatics - remember that producing, storing, transporting and burning it makes it currently way less efficient than putting the power into a lead acid battery for release. And fusion plants in cars? Oh please!

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    Shock horror, someone did a net margin on how eco-friendly electric cars actually are. Thing is, electric cars have a lot more potential than petrol/diesel and the only way you're going to be able to develop it is to make them now. They won't be perfect instantly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    Perhaps it's time we re-visited running the internal combustion engine on ethanol?

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    Electric cars need:
    - new infrastructure
    - new technology
    - lots of electricity that currently isn't green

    Diesel engines:
    - can run on cooking oil
    - are available, current technology
    - don't need new infrastructure
    - can be really clean (filter/cat)

    Cooking oil can be produced without food competition or deforestation.
    And you could bypass the oil industry too :)

    Why go electric at all...?

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    What is killing us in Paris is the pollution from diesel. For years it has been pushed to car buyers in France and now we are in serious trouble. I don't know how many diesel cars are polluting London, but worth checking out. The particles from diesel are much worse than others. Let's save the children and find real alternatives, other sources of electricity for example as noted in comments here.


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