Electric Vehicles Are Even Better Than We Thought

A new life-cycle analysis finds they have a third of the footprint.

cyclist passing charging electric cars

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

For years there have been articles claiming that battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) are as bad as internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEVs) because they are charged with coal-fired electricity and because making batteries is so energy-intensive. Treehugger has always called this fossil-fueled propaganda and noted that even in places with the dirtiest electricity, BEVs emit less carbon dioxide per mile traveled.

However, I have complained that life-cycle analyses of BEVs showed them to have about 15% more embodied carbon, or upfront CO2 emissions from their manufacture and that their total emissions in the full life-cycle end up to be about half as much as those of an ICEV. But every year the electrical supply gets a bit cleaner, and the battery makers get more efficient. (See Treehugger's explanation of life-cycle analyses here.)

Now, a new report from the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) finds that battery production is a lot cleaner than previously assumed and ICEVs are dirtier than previously assumed when you account for real-world testing. So on a full life-cycle analysis, taking into account the mix of electric power sources in four different locations:

"...the assessment finds that the life-cycle emissions over the lifetime of BEVs registered today in Europe, theUnited States, China, and India are already lower than a comparable gasoline car by66%–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 life-cycle emissions gap between BEVs and gasoline vehicles increases to 74%–77% in Europe, 62%–76% in the United States, 48%–64% inChina, and 30%–56% in India."
Comparison of electric to gas carbon footprints

So my previous claims that BEVs were only twice as good as ICEVs should be updated to three times as good, or that the lifetime carbon emissions are about a third of ICEVs. By 2030, the study authors assume BEVs will be four times as good as ICEVs.

The study assumes battery chemistry will continue to improve and that the proportion of electricity that is low-carbon and renewable will continue to increase.

"Our aim with this study was to capture the elements that policymakers in these major markets need to fairly and critically evaluate different technology pathways for passenger cars,” said ICCT researcher Georg Bieker, the study's author. “We know we need transformational change to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, and the results show that certain technologies are going to be capable of delivering deep decarbonization and others are clearly not.”

The ones that are not are the hydrogen fuel cell powered cars, unless powered by truly green renewable hydrogen, hybrids, and natural gas or biogas. The authors put it all into one paragraph:

"The detailed findings can be summarized straightforwardly. Only battery electric vehicles(BEVs) and fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) powered by renewable electricity can achieve the kind of deep reductions in GHG emissions from transportation that comport with the Paris agreement's goal of keeping global warming well below 2 °C. There is no realistic pathway to that goal that relies on combustion-engine vehicles, including hybrids of any sort."
Battery carbon emissions per kwh

There are a couple of caveats. For the first time, we are seeing estimates of the carbon emissions per kilowatt-hour of battery capacity, so a big electric pickup truck with a 200 kilowatt-hour battery is still going to pack a whack of upfront carbon; it's another good reason to promote smaller, lighter vehicles.

Then there is the electricity supply, Even the authors of the study acknowledge that the switch to BEVs only lets us hit the 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) target–they have evidently given up on 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius)—if the grid supplying them is zero carbon. Peter Mock, ICCT's managing director for Europe, says in a press release:

“The results highlight the importance of grid decarbonization alongside vehicle electrification. The life-cycle GHG performance of electric cars will improve as grids decarbonize, and regulations that promote electrification are crucial to capturing the future benefits of renewable energy.”

There is also the time value of carbon, described as "the concept that greenhouse gas emissions cut today are worth more than cuts promised in the future, due to the escalating risks associated with the pace and extent of climate action." We have a fixed carbon budget to keep under 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) increase in warming.

As Rob Cotter, formerly the builder of the ELF electric vehicle has noted, making either an electric or gas vehicle emits about 35 tons of CO2, and we are building about 100 million cars per year. Cotter notes: "That's 3.5 Gigatons of CO2 before the cars ever hit the road. Completely unsustainable." It's about 10% of the remaining budget to stay under 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius). Every year.

So we really shouldn't be building any kind of vehicle that needs thousands of pounds of metal to move 200 pounds of person, it makes no sense. But I have to admit that while electric cars are still cars, from a carbon point of view, on a full lifecycle analysis they are half as bad (or twice as good, depending on your outlook) as I thought they were previously, and they can reduce the CO2 emissions from their manufacture and operation by up to 75% compared to ICEVs.

Perhaps in the light of this new analysis, I should get behind Treehugger writer Sami Grover's much more reasonable response than my usual "ban cars" approach:

  1. Switch all vehicles to electric drivetrains.
  2. Clean up the electrical grid so they run on renewables.
  3. Encourage the use of smaller vehicles with only as much range as is realistically needed.
  4. Promote ridesharing and alternatives to car ownership, so manufacturing emissions are spread over a greater number of passenger miles.
  5. Rethink planning and transportation so that cars aren't necessary.
View Article Sources
  1. Bieker, Georg. "A Global Comparison of the Life-cycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Combustion Engine and Electric Passenger Cars." The International Council on Clean Transportation, 2021.