How green and eco-friendly is your electric car?
10 minutes readMar 15, 2021

How green and eco-friendly is your electric car?

Electric vehicle | Sustainability

Definitely, electric car is zero-emission, more sustainable and greener and with a lower environmental impact than any combustion car.

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The reality is that, nowadays, electric vehicles still generate mistrust, reticence and even controversy among society and some users.

Whether they have a limited autonomy, whether they are too expensive, whether there are not enough charging points, whether they are not as powerful... Many of these claims are simply myths that are far from being true.

But there are also those who claim that the electric vehicle is not really green and sustainable, and even emits more emissions than combustion vehicles!

These are indeed false and unsubstantiated assertions, which we will refute in the strongest possible terms.

Reasons for the growing demand for electric vehicles

Tesla, the leading brand in electric car sales in Europe and worldwide, is more valuable than the next nine competitors.

This is partly due to the rising consumer demand for electric vehicles, and a spate of government regulations aimed at both phasing out traditional combustion engines within the next decade and decarbonizing countries’ economies.

The reason why demand has increased is partly economics. Although electricity markets around the world vary, it is almost always cheaper to use an electric vehicle than any diesel or petrol car, even the initial purchase is somewhat higher.

But another big part of the appeal of electric cars is their perceived low-impact on the environment. Nonetheless, there remains a lingering doubt among many electric-car skeptics: Just how green are they?

The electric car is excellent at tackling air pollution

While there are a number of reasons why regulators (and users) are beginning to prefer electric vehicles, the most discussed are carbon emissions and air pollution.

In terms of climate impact, according to European Commission, combustion engine vehicles currently emit around 30% of the EU’s carbon emissions (72% of which come from road transport) and 28% of the United States' carbon emissions.

In addition, there have been significant concerns raised about the health of individuals living in cities with high traffic pollution due to combustion car engines. In fact, it is estimated that approximately 3.5 million premature deaths a year are due to ambient air pollution.

So, when it comes to local air pollution (such as fine particulate matter or PM and nitrogen oxide or NOx), electric vehicles are a complete win as they are zero emission.

Such chemicals are short-lived in the atmosphere. So even if an electricity plant were to produce energy from non-renewable sources, the pollution would be omitted outside city centers and would therefore cause minimal damage.

The situation is more nuanced when it comes to carbon pollution. The cleaner the power plant, the cleaner the electric vehicle. But even in this case, we can't directly compare power plant emissions for an electric vehicle with the direct emissions of a combustion engine vehicle. Direct emissions from an EV are zero.

It's just indirect emissions that matter and they exist for combustion-based cars too (and at a much higher rate).

Emissions from a tank of petrol are not just due to the petrol burned but also to the emissions needed to extract the fuel and those required to transport it to the vehicle.

Another point that needs to be considered is the secondary effect of petrol and diesel production. In order to feed combustion engines, we need to use oil. This process has a significant impact on the environment in and of itself.

Did you know that an average combustion engine car burns around 17,000 liters of oil in its lifetime?

How green your electric car depends on where you live

A major argument leveled against electric vehicles is that they don’t reduce emissions, they simply move them. While there is some truth in this argument, we must bear in mind that:

Even in the worst-case scenario, the electric car is still more green. To be more precise, according to the Transport & Environment study, an electric car emits 22% less CO2 than a diesel and 28% less than a petrol (taking into account electricity that comes from burning fossil fuels, both in the manufacture of the battery and the energy used during its use). And yet, we save tons of CO2!

But at the best-case scenario, we save 80% of CO2! Not to mention that an electric car generates neither fine particulate matter nor nitrogen dioxide (NO2) like diesel cars, which are seriously harmful to our health.

So if you live in an area that still relies heavily on fossil fuels for its energy generation (as might be the case in a country like Poland, which still generates 78% of its energy from coal or lignite sources), your electric vehicle will be less greener than it could be.

However, in countries with a mixed, or renewables-heavy, energy source, electric vehicles typically provide a strong positive impact. An electric car in renewables-friendly Norway is the closest thing you can get to zero emissions.

Nonetheless, emissions produced by the manufacture of an electric car in coal-heavy China are almost double that of the United Kingdom, which has cleaner electricity sources.

We are moving towards greener and more sustainable energy globally

The global shift towards renewable energy could render this concern irrelevant in the near future. In October 2020, renewable energy became cheaper than fossil fuels, not considering subsidies.

Without any doubt, this will provide significant impetus for countries to retool their power grids to use more renewable sources of energy, which will help to mitigate concerns surrounding operational emissions for electric cars.

In any case, an electric car is, on average, 39% cleaner than using an internal combustion engine.

In addition, cities such as Oslo have toyed with different ways to reduce car traffic in their centers. As a result, the efforts have been broadly effective and have significantly reduced ambient pollution.

Electric car’s big challenge: making batteries more sustainable

Even under the worst conditions, electric cars are more efficient and greener to run than their combustion-fueled counterparts. But generally, electric cars are (for the moment) less green to produce. However, running an EV for just 1-2 years is more than enough to make up for this deficit.

And precisely the Well to Wheel analysis method proves it, because although the production of an electric car is associated with 15% more CO2 emissions than a combustion engine (due to the production of the battery), this difference is compensated after only 20,000km of driving.

This method takes into account the CO2 emitted both to extract, transport and process the crude oil needed to manufacture cars and to produce petrol and lubricants for their use, as well as CO2 emitted when manufacturing an electric and generating the electricity to power it.

Advances in lithium-ion battery recycling could hold the key

Thus, one of the biggest challenges for electric vehicle manufacturers is related to the batteries themselves, both in relation to the manufacturing process and the recycling process.

Good news is that rapid progress is being made in the development of green lithium mining which uses geothermal energy and produces no carbon. Similar developments are underway for green nickel, aluminum, and other metals, as well as the evolution of existing lithium-ion batteries into promising solid-state batteries or graphene-based organic batteries.

But the best thing is that governments have already identified this potential challenge.

The European Union has proposed a measure that will include goals (and mandatory requirements) for the whole lifecycle of electric vehicle batteries to minimize their environmental impact.

The aim is to make the production processes of these batteries significantly greener and thus contribute to meeting the climate decarbonization goals set out in the European Climate Law to combat climate change.

The measure proposes that such batteries should be carbon neutral and recyclable for a high percentage of their raw materials by 2030 (to be more specific, 95% for cobalt, 70% for lithium, 95% for nickel and 95% for lead).

To reach this target, the proposal states:

  • From 2024, all batteries sold in Europe would have to publicly declare their carbon footprint.

  • From 2027, it would be mandatory to declare the amount of recycled raw materials used for their production. Not only that, but Brussels is proposing to set 2027 as the deadline for not allowing the sale of any battery or electric car that does not respect the CO2 emission limits.

Last but not least, this measure establishes a framework to promote the reuse of electric vehicle batteries with the aim of giving them a second life, either as energy storage systems or as part of the electricity grid as an energy resource.

Progress is just around the corner

A number of startups are already working on this challenge. For example, Redwood Materials is working on a breakthrough method that combines leeching and hydrometallurgy to maximize the recovery of materials from the battery.

The company claims that their process can recover between 95 and 98 percent of a battery’s nickel, cobalt, copper, aluminum, and graphite, and more than 80 percent of its lithium.

Other companies, such as Li-Cycle have worked on a refined leaching process that doesn’t produce any wastewater.

If these processes can be refined, and battery manufacturers put recycling at the heart of their designs, it will be possible to significantly reduce the number of environmentally damaging materials needed for new electric vehicles.

So, there are very real challenges ahead with electric vehicles, but few of them are due to the cars themselves. The shift towards renewable energy has already begun, and even if you live in China, electric vehicles will still be less damaging and ultimately cheaper than buying a new combustion engine car.

However, in order to maximize the green potential of electric vehicles and to make them 100% zero emission in all their processes, further work needs to be done to adopt 100% sustainable energy grids.

💙🔌 Go electric!

Buying an electric car will undoubtedly have a significantly lower lifetime environmental impact than any new combustion engine purchase will. You will reduce your personal carbon footprint significantly and save money in the long-term. And Place to Plug is here to help! Our goal is to boost electric mobility and the deployment of charging infrastructure through our all-in-one solution:

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