Where do the environmental costs of electric vehicles come in?

Cosmos Magazine


Cosmos is a quarterly science magazine. We aim to inspire curiosity in ‘The Science of Everything’ and make the world of science accessible to everyone.

By Cosmos

One repeated rumour about electric vehicles (EVs) is that, if you’re not running them on renewable electricity, they’re worse for the environment than petrol and diesel cars – the argument is about “so-called “life cycle” total emissions.

Is there any weight to the rumour?

The first thing one might assume when pondering this question is that if you’re running an electric vehicle on grid electricity, it’s only going to be as clean as the grid it’s running from. So, given a majority of Australia’s electricity still comes from fossil fuel sources, what does that mean for vehicle-linked emissions?

They’re still lower in most situations, according to Dr Jennifer Rayner, head of advocacy at the Climate Council.

“There’s research that indicates that even if you’re powering an EV from the grid, which might be using a mix of power sources, that is still significantly cleaner than driving a petrol car, which is spewing out the emissions associated with its internal combustion engine,” she says.

Cosmos spoke to Rayner for the latest episode of Debunks, our new podcast where our science journalists investigate myths and misconceptions.

Rayner cites the International Council on Clean Transportation’s assessment of vehicle lifecycles. Done across Europe, the United States, China, and India, the research found that EVs have “by far” the lowest life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions.

In the US and Europe, EVs were 60-70% cleaner than comparable conventional cars, while in India and China, with more coal-dependent grids, they were 19-34% and 37%–45% cleaner, respectively.

It’s also worth noting that all of these statistics are changing fast – particularly in Australia.

“At the moment, we’re basically literally seeing the grid get cleaner by the day,” says Rayner.

In 2022, 32% of Australia’s total energy was generated from renewables, up from 29% in 2021. Renewable energy varies significantly by state: Tasmania and the ACT run 100% renewables (or close to it), while only 6% of the Northern Territory’s energy mix was renewable.

What about other emissions associated with electric vehicles?

“It’s absolutely true that the production process for manufacturing EVs mean that it can produce something like 80% more emissions in the manufacturing process than an equivalent petrol car,” says Rayner.

Those extra emissions come primarily from the car battery: made from precious metals like lithium, nickel, and cobalt, all of these things take energy to mine.

“But over the lifecycle of a vehicle, the vast majority of the emissions come from driving it around,” says Rayner.

Is that the whole story on the environmental effects of EVs? Well, not quite – there are a few other ways they could have greater, or lesser, environmental impacts. For more, listen to Debunks.

Subscribe to Debunks on your favourite podcast service:

Subscribe to our podcastsSubscribe to our podcasts

Please login to favourite this article.