Do Electric Vehicles Pollute As Much As Gas-Powered Ones?

No. The answer to the question posed in the title, “Do Electric Vehicles Pollute as Much as Gas-Powered Ones?” is unequivocally no. As electric vehicles have gained consumer interest and market share over the past decade, some studies have emerged to supposedly refute claims that EVs are better for the environment. The counter-argument went that something like, “EVs pollute because the energy needed to manufacture the ever-important battery — in additional to the emissions from electricity generation — makes EVs pollute worse than a gas-powered car.”

Balderdash!

A new study from the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) proves that all the negative hype is nothing more than hooey.

“Results show that even for cars registered today, battery electric vehicles (BEVs) have by far the lowest life-cycle GHG emissions.”

The findings have significant implications for policymakers seeking to substantially decarbonize road transport by 2050, in line with Paris Agreement objectives.

Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from global road transport in 2050 need to be dramatically lower than today’s levels. That’s clear. Light-duty vehicles, the vast majority of which are passenger cars, are responsible for the largest share of transport-related GHG emissions, currently about 5 Gt CO2 eq.

And what’s also evident is that only full battery EVs and hydrogen fuel-cell EVs have the potential to be very low-GHG pathways. It turns out that the emissions from manufacturing batteries, solar panels, and wind turbines are very small when compared to the GHG savings from the greater efficiency and cleaner energy supply of EVs compared to conventional vehicles.

Electric vehicles pollute far less than their legacy counterparts. Additionally, battery EVs can be expected to operate with progressively fewer upstream emissions over their lifetimes as electricity grids become green and the relative benefit of driving EVs compared to gasoline, diesel, and natural gas cars grows over time.

Studying How Much Electric Vehicles Pollute

The ICCT study, “A Global Comparison of the Life-Cycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Combustion Engine and Electric Passenger Cars,” took into account the most relevant powertrain types —

  • internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEVs), including hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs);
  • plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs);
  • battery electric vehicles (BEVs); and,
  • fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs).

It also reviewed a variety of fuel types and power sources, including gasoline, diesel, natural gas, biofuels, e-fuels, hydrogen, and electricity.

As the average useful lifetime of a passenger car is between 15 and 18 years (for trucks and buses, it is often even longer), decarbonization policies will be most impactful if they reflect passenger cars transitioning to all EVs for new sales by the early 2030s. It is necessary in order to achieve deep decarbonization of the transport sector by 2050.

Importantly, the study also finds that natural gas does not offer climate benefits compared to gasoline and diesel, and many biofuel pathways do not, either. There is not likely to be sufficient supply of very low-GHG biofuels, biogas, and e-fuels to decarbonize internal combustion engine vehicles, and drivers of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles rely too much on the gasoline engine for this pathway to be a long-term climate solution.

The carbon intensity of the electricity consumed by charging BEVs and PHEVs is based on the average lifecycle GHG emissions of the different electric energy sources, their projected mix during the lifetime of the vehicles, and transmission and distribution losses in the electric grid. Note, also, that for renewable energy sources such as wind and solar energy, the lifecycle GHG emissions are considered. In other words, the emissions corresponding to their construction and maintenance.

Distinct Measures of EVs’ Vast Superiority

The study analyzed 4 distinct dimensions to come up with its conclusions that electric vehicles pollute much less than gas-powered vehicles.

  • It considered the lifetime average carbon intensity of the fuel and electricity mixes, including biofuels and biogas. Based on stated policies, it accounts for changes in the carbon intensity during the useful lifetime of the vehicles.
  • It reviewed the fuel and electricity consumption in average real-world usage instead of solely relying on official test values. This is especially important for assessing the GHG emissions of PHEVs.
  • It used recent data on industrial-scale battery production and considers regional battery supply chains. This results in significantly lower battery production emissions than in earlier studies.
  • It incorporated the near-term global warming potential of methane leakage emissions of natural gas and natural gas-derived hydrogen pathways. Different from other GHGs, methane contributes several times more to global warming in the first 20 years after emission than is reflected by the 100-year global warming potential.

Here are the results.

Only battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles have the potential to achieve the magnitude of lifecycle GHG emissions reductions needed to meet Paris Agreement goals. The assessment finds that the lifecycle emissions over the lifetime of BEVs registered today in Europe, the United States, China, and India are already lower than a comparable gasoline car by 66%–69% in Europe, 60%–68% in the United States, 37%–45% in China, and 19%–34%
in India.

For medium-size cars projected to be registered in 2030, as the electricity mix continues to decarbonize, the lifecycle emissions gap between BEVs and gasoline vehicles increases to 74%–77% in Europe, 62%–76% in the United States, 48%–64% in China, and 30%–56% in India.

There is no realistic pathway for deep decarbonization of combustion engine vehicles. Hybrid EVs improve the efficiency of internal combustion engine vehicles by recovering braking energy and storing it in a battery that can then be used to support propulsion with an electric motor. In this study, HEVs were found to reduce lifecycle GHG emissions by only about 20% compared to conventional gasoline cars.

This study also analyzed the development of the average blend of biofuels and biogas in fossil diesel, gasoline, and natural gas based on current policies and projected supply. Across the four regions and all fuel types, the impact of future changes in the biofuel blends driven by current policies range from a negligible influence to a reduction of the lifecycle GHG emissions of gasoline, diesel, or natural gas vehicles by a maximum of 9%, even over the lifetime of cars registered in 2030.

Due to a number of factors, including competing demand from other sectors and high cost of production, it is not feasible to supply enough low-carbon biofuels such as residues and waste-based biodiesel, ethanol, or biomethane to substantially displace fossil fuels in combustion engine cars.

Final Thoughts

To reduce the GHG emissions of light-duty vehicles, many governments now follow two complementary approaches:

  1. They aim to reduce the fuel consumption of new vehicles by setting fleet average CO2 emission or fuel efficiency standards, and by providing incentives for vehicles with electric powertrains; and,
  2. They support the decarbonization of the electricity grid and incentivize the production of renewable and low-carbon fuels.

Given the continuous efforts to decarbonize electricity grids, BEVs are assumed to consume a less carbon-intensive electricity mix with each passing year of their lifetime. It’s time to support communities that are making the switch to electric transportation modes in our personal, regional, and professional capacities.


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