Kjell Ivar Tungland
Electric cars, from cradle to grave
Is the electric car more environmentally friendly than a petrol-powered car when we look at the whole life cycle of the vehicle?
“Electric car use in Norway clearly benefits the climate, even when we include the whole climate account from the lifetime of the electric car.The incentives we have to increase the use of electric cars are good for the climate,” says researcher Linda Ager-Wick Ellingsen at NTNU.
She is making a life cycle assessment of batteries used for transport, and we asked her which car wins the climate race when we look at the whole life cycle: the electric car or the fossil fuel car.
Ellingsen says that electric car use in Norway, where 98 per cent of all electricity produced comes from hydropower, is good for the climate.But what about the rest of the world – are electric cars a way to reduce global emissions?
Ellingsen points out that a product can never be better for the environment in every way than the product it replaces.The same goes for electric cars where they replace petrol and diesel cars.
“There is something called problem displacement.When we talk about pollution, it includes many types of emissions that can lead to different sorts of damage to the environment, or environmental burdens as we call them.There are many types of environmental burden; some are local, some are regional and some may even be global.Climate change is an example of a global environmental burden, while toxicity is an example of a more local burden.When we compare electric cars with regular cars, we see that they have lower global greenhouse gas emissions, but the extraction of certain metals used in the battery can lead to rather bigger local environmental problems where the mining takes place,” she explains.
She still believes that more electric cars are good for the climate:
“It would be good for the climate if we had fewer fossil-fuel cars and more electric cars, but that requires more renewable energy to be produced,” says Ellingsen.
The electric car starts with higher greenhouse gas emissions, but wins in the long run.
Analyses by Daimler AG for Mercedes-Benz show that the production of an electric Mercedes-Benz B-Class produces 10.1 tonnes of CO2 emissions, while the production of a petrol-powered B 180 produces emissions of 5.5 tonnes of CO2.
“When an electric car is produced, it actually produces greater greenhouse gas emissions than a regular car, but over the whole life of the car, the electric car will have a much better climate account than the petrol car,” says Ellingsen.
Electric car drivetrains have considerably higher production emissions than conventional drivetrains, and this is mainly due to the battery.
“Lithium batteries are the most commonly used in electric cars.There is more than enough lithium in the world. The lithium used in electric car batteries is extracted in a relatively environmentally friendly way from salt lakes in South America.Lithium is not recycled, because it is cheap to produce,” says Ellingsen.
On the other hand, nickel and cobalt, which are also used in batteries, lead to greater emissions from mining than lithium.But mining for nickel and cobalt is expensive, so these materials are recycled.
“Cobalt is mostly extracted as a by-product from copper mines in the Congo, and this produces local emissions where the extraction takes place,” says Ellingsen.
On the road, the electric car is the winner
Electric car production can lead to higher local emissions, usually toxic, than regular car production, but recycling cobalt allows this to be recovered in the next generation batteries.
However, the higher greenhouse gas emissions produced by an electric car in the production phase are offset when the car is used.
Life cycle analyses show, among other things, that an electric Mercedes-Benz B-Class emits 64 per cent less CO2 throughout its life than a petrol-powered Mercedes-Benz B 180, when the electric car is run on the so-called European power mix, which is produced with oil, coal, natural gas, nuclear power and renewable resources.
If an electric car is run on electricity from hydropower, it produces just 0.2 tonnes of CO2 emissions in its lifetime.An electric car that runs on the European electricity mix will produce 11.9 tonnes of CO2, while a petrol car is estimated to emit more than twice as much CO2 during its time on the road – 24 tonnes.
So the electric car is the clear winner, with the Norwegian or the European electricity mix.
“The production of more renewable energy is also high on the agenda in the EU, and all of the European countries are working towards a shift in the production of energy.This will mean that electric cars on European roads in the future will produce even lower emissions than today,” says Ellingsen.
In a word:
An electric car produces less greenhouse gas emissions than a petrol car when you look at the account for the whole life of the car.
This applies to both Norwegian and European electricity mixes
Production of electric car batteries leads to higher local emissions where the mining to extract the materials for the battery takes place
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