Are Electric Vehicles Actually Worse for the Environment than Combustion Engines?

With so many people claiming that electric vehicles are in fact bad for the environment, we take a look at the data.
Chris Young

We've all seen it in the comments sections of social media posts. There are always a few people adamant that electric vehicles pollute more than internal combustion engine vehicles.

At best, they claim the electric vehicle (EV) industry is scoring an own goal by creating a technology that, throughout a vehicle's lifetime, pollutes more than internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. At worst, they say it's all part of a conspiracy aimed at filling the pockets of clean energy providers.

So, are electric vehicles really worse for the environment than internal combustion engine vehicles? Though the issue isn't completely black and white, the short answer is no. Here's why.


The battery emissions problem

Whether you are a proponent of electric vehicles or not, one issue is widely accepted: EVs release a lot of CO2 during the manufacturing process. This is due largely to the production of lithium-ion batteries.

A new IVL report, released this month, says, "according to new calculations, the production of lithium-ion batteries on average emits somewhere between 61-106 kilos of carbon dioxide equivalents per kilowatt-hour battery capacity produced."

However, this figure keeps improving. The figure above, for example, is an improvement on the same organization's study in 2017 that said, "an electric car with a 100kWh battery [emits] 15-20 tons of carbon dioxide even before the vehicle ignition is turned on," with emissions of 150 to 200 kilograms of carbon dioxide for each kilowatt-hour storage capacity in a car battery.

Are Electric Vehicles Actually Worse for the Environment than Combustion Engines?
Source: ahimaone/iStock

What's more, as a 2018 International Council on Clean Transportation (ICTT) report points out, the country in which batteries are manufactured as well as the materials used has a great impact on the level of emissions produced. This means there's a better way to manufacture EV batteries and it's down to countries to get the wheels in motion.

EV batteries are as clean as the country producing them

A study that compares the emissions of EV and ICE production in China further emphasizes the role of infrastructure in reducing emissions in EV manufacturing. The study claims that Chinese EV battery manufacturers could cut their emissions by 66% if they employ American or European manufacturing techniques. 

Tellingly, even the 2017 IVL study on battery emissions, which emphasized the large CO2 emissions of production, didn't call for EVs do be disowned and ICE vehicles to come back to the fore.

Instead, the scientists behind the study said the focus going forward must be on optimizing battery production. They called on governments to implement regulations that enforce efficient production.

Ultimately, improvements in manufacturing efficiency battery recycling will greatly reduce the emissions problem of EV batteries.

Lifetime emissions form a larger picture

It is when we look at carbon emissions over a vehicle's lifetime, that a strong contrast is formed. The ICTT study highlights the difference in emissions between both types of vehicles over their entire lifetimes.

EVs' lack of tailpipe emissions means that the majority of emissions for electric transportation are produced in the manufacturing process — and these emissions are largely reliant on where the manufacturing takes place.

Now, we must also take the production of electricity into account. Once again, this is region-based and areas that produce a lot of clean electricity, such as Alaska, will, in turn, make their EVs cleaner. Once again this comes down to infrastructure and is something that is continually improving worldwide.

Here are a few telling statistics. According to the ICTT study, a typical electric car today produces only half of the carbon emissions of a typical European ICE car.

What's more, an electric car using average European electricity is almost 30% cleaner over its entire lifespan when compared with even the most efficient ICE vehicle available on the market today. 

EV emissions debt is quickly paid off

If we look at countries with very low-carbon electricity, such as Norway or France, the study says that EVs produce less than a third of the emissions of an average ICE vehicle over its entire lifespan.

Essentially EVs have an emissions debt, due to the high CO2 emissions of battery manufacture, but this is quickly paid off.

According to the ICTT study, "an electric vehicle’s higher emissions during the manufacturing stage are paid off after only 2 years compared to driving an average conventional vehicle, a time frame that drops to about one and a half years if the car is charged using renewable energy." 

Misleading studies detract from EV potential

One important point the ICTT study makes is that "recent estimates of battery manufacturing emissions vary by a factor of 10, indicating the need for additional research in this field." 

There is undoubtedly a grey area when it comes to estimating the exact emissions of EV battery manufacturing. Unfortunately, some organizations seem intent on using this fact to mislead the public. 

One such example is a recent study by the Munich-based Institute for Economic Research (IFO), which says that “considering Germany’s current energy mix and the amount of energy used in battery production, the CO2 emissions of battery-electric vehicles are, in the best case, slightly higher than those of a diesel engine, and are otherwise much higher.”

After being published, the study was quickly found to be riddled with inaccuracies. The authors, for example, incorrectly calculated CO2 emissions for a Tesla Model 3 as being 16 percent higher than the official figures published by Germany’s Federal Environmental Agency.

They also compared a Tesla Model 3 with a 75 kWh battery pack and 473 hp to a Mercedes C220 diesel with 194 hp. In other words, they compared one of the most efficient diesel engines cars on the market to a car that's far from being the most efficient EV available.

There's no denying that more study is needed to understand the impact of EV battery production worldwide and more work is needed to develop methods that make it more sustainable for the environment. However, the large majority of studies indicate that, despite the high CO2 emissions from production, EVs are the more environmentally friendly option, and this will only continue to improve.

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