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 228.

    Well, I dont like to say I told you so, but, what do you expect? Top Gear have shown that a Mercedes Benz is more eco friendly than an electric/hybrid car. Electric cars will NEVER be good enough unless superconductive technology is perfected. The only way to wean us off of petrol is to use Hydrogen which has it's own problems.

  • rate this

    Comment number 227.

    Always useful with some more life-cycle analysis. However, the analysis (or the reporting) is too western-centric. Local air pollution is a major health issue in developing economies. In those places, the zero tailpipe emissions of electric vehicles (regardless of how the electricity is produced) is a big environmental benefit. Unsurprisingly, China is the leading adopter of electric vehicles.

  • rate this

    Comment number 226.

    Lets face it there is no free lunch, For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, when will we learn!!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 225.

    Why do you all think Hydrogen is a magic solution? You need to burn fossil fuel to make the Hydrogen in the first place !

  • rate this

    Comment number 224.

    Just like when cars were invented.. filthy gas guzzle-ling air polluting monsters ! but look at them now ! Given a few years development and electric cars will be as green as can be ! I plan to get one and charge off my Solar Panel system (which has already saved me more than £1600 pounds in its first year of operation, and this was a poor summer ! )

  • rate this

    Comment number 223.

    It is really a fairly moot point considering Oil reserves are getting harder to find meaning we may have already passed Peak Oil extraction. Better to introduce these vehicles now than to wait until a barrel of oil is $500 and only the super-rich can afford transport.

  • rate this

    Comment number 222.

    Naturally it takes teams of researchers to tell us what we already know...if we all went over to electric cars, how many thousands of powerstations would we need to build worldwide..oh and the motels for people to sleep in whilst charging them up! The only real option is nuclear...

  • rate this

    Comment number 221.

    Who cares? We can't reply on oil or petrol so this is a closed arguement.
    It will only polute because of the way the industry works at present. If it invested money instead of ripping of customers to fill shareholders pockets then there would be no issues.

  • rate this

    Comment number 220.

    And not to mention transmission losses of electricity, it will be a dumb solution where these are high (often where older technologies and methods like coal are used).

  • rate this

    Comment number 219.

    I'm going to stick with petrol cars until the flying car becomes standard.

  • rate this

    Comment number 218.

    This isn't comparing apples with apples. Electric cars are evolving fast, unlike fossil fuel cars. If the stats show some comparison now then that's amazing and it won't be long before they easily surpass the credentials of old cars. Buying electric now saves the future by providing a market bridge to that future.

  • Comment number 217.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 216.

    197.Philip C
    9 Minutes ago
    ".. Frozen air or hydrogen fuel holds far more green potential and both are more practical."

    Wrong I'm afraid. The escape velocity of Hydrogen is 11.2km/s so there is little retained naturally within our atmosphere. Most Hydrogen commercially produced for fuel cells is....
    yes, you guessed it, from hydrocarbons!
    Try again Phil !!

  • rate this

    Comment number 215.

    What I would like to know, before taking in any of those conclusion, was who commissioned and sponsored the research. If it's some lobbying group for conventional car manufacturers, the whole thing may as well be ignored.

  • rate this

    Comment number 214.

    Somewhat misleading headline.... No doubt sponsored by the oil industry..

  • rate this

    Comment number 213.

    The important point is that the CO2 and other pollutants for an electric car are produced at the power station, where it is easy to apply technology to trap them.

    Petrol cars, however, produce their pollutants everywhere. Any trapping technology would need to be impossibly small/light to make it feasible.

  • rate this

    Comment number 212.

    They have been trying to make a viable electric car for over a century. For well over 100 years we have been told "the batteries will get better" or "we just need to perfect them". It comes as no surprise that an electric car can be responsible for more damage than a petrol car - especially given how most of our electricity is generated.

  • rate this

    Comment number 211.

    Unfortunately this is somewhat like p...ing in the wind.

    Electric cars are just a small part of the equation. What about those millions of DIESEL lorries or even dirtier "bunker fuel" container ships that belch out emissions 24hrs a day across the world (and most of the contents is "junk" from the far east destined for the West to be thrown in landfill sites once Halloween or Christmas is over).

  • rate this

    Comment number 210.

    Wow and they had to do a scientific study to confirm the bloomin obvious?

    Clearly the source of the electricity must be eco-friendly for electric cars to make sense. Otherwise you're just burning the carbon at a different point in the power generation process.

  • rate this

    Comment number 209.

    This goes hand-in-hand with http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-19842401

    When we have sufficient, clean electricity generation capacity, electric cars will come into their own.


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