Pick a region of the globe — any region. There’s a 95% chance electric cars in that area will be greener than petrol cars, even if the electricity comes from fossil fuels. In some areas, the difference is already huge.
The sale of electric cars is taking off in the world. Places like Scandinavia, China, California, or Japan are leading the way, but the rest of the world is also catching up. It’s a bumpy road, however, and misleading myths aren’t helping.
A particularly pervasive myth is that electric cars aren’t really that eco-friendly, that they produce more emissions than regular old cars. But while electric cars have their own environmental concerns (especially in regards to the elements in their batteries), when it comes to emissions at least, electric cars are almost always better. A study recently published in Nature clearly shows it.
The new research from the universities of Nijmegen in The Netherlands, and Exeter and Cambridge in the United Kingdom, shows that in 95% of the world, driving an electric car produces fewer emissions than a petrol car.
The team split the entire globe into 59 regions and found that in 53 of them (covering 95% of the global landmass, and including the US, China, and Europe) electric cars are already less emission-intensive than fossil-fuel alternatives.
The study covered the entire lifecycle assessment of cars, including production and driving emissions, and the differences were striking.
In countries like Sweden and Denmark (which get most of their electricity from renewables) or France (which is largely powered by nuclear), the margin is particularly large: electric cars emit about 70% less over their lifetime. But what’s perhaps more surprising is that even in countries where the bulk of the electricity comes from fossil fuels, electric cars still produce fewer emissions.
For instance, in the UK, renewables account for around 20% of the country’s electricity, and still, electric car emissions are 30% lower on average. Of course, there are substantial differences between different types of cars (which is also why it’s so difficult to carry out reviews and averages as there are so many different parameters to consider) — but when we take into consideration all the cars on the street, from newer, efficient cars, to high emission junk cars, electric cars seem to fare better.
This is in line with previous estimates (and even a bit more conservative than some). For instance, a 2019 lifetime assessment in the UK found that a Nissan Leaf EV, one of the most popular electric cars, produces three times fewer emissions than the average conventional car, even before accounting for the falling carbon intensity of electricity generation forecasted for the future.
It’s worth noting that sometimes, analyses come with different conclusions. Most notably, a recent working paper from a group of German researchers concluded that “electric vehicles will barely help cut CO2 emissions in Germany over the coming years”. However, the study was not peer-reviewed and other experts were very critical of it. Meanwhile, verified, peer-reviewed studies showed the exact opposite: electric cars have substantially lower emissions.
To sum things up, the vast majority of evidence indicates that electric cars are cleaner than fossil fuel cars, even after considering the production process and the entire lifecycle. Myth — busted.
Jean-Francois Mercure, of Exeter University, a co-author of the study, concludes:
“The answer is clear: to reduce carbon emissions, we should choose electric cars and household heat pumps over fossil fuel alternatives.”
The paper “Net emission reductions from electric cars and heat pumps in 59 world regions over time” was published in the journal Nature Sustainability.
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