At first glance, electric cars are unparalleled in terms of environmental friendliness. They do not cause any harmful emissions, such as CO2 or other greenhouse gases. But that is only half of the story. To find out how environmentally friendly electric cars really are, we need to know the entire lifecycle as well as the power sources used to charge the vehicles.
The term environmental – or climate – footprint describes the overall impact that a vehicle has on the environment, beyond just measuring the exhaust gas emissions. This includes everything that goes into producing, maintaining, and disposing of a vehicle on the one hand, and on the other, operating it and generating the energy for charging the battery.
Only 38 percent of the electricity consumed in Germany in 2018 came from renewable energy sources such as wind, sun, and water. The footprint of electric vehicles is better than that of vehicles with combustion engines, even if the electric vehicles do not run on green energy alone. More damage is caused to the environment through the extraction of oil and production of gasoline and diesel. According to the Federal Ministry for the Environment, operating a compact electric car and supplying the energy for it generates less than 100 grams of CO2 emissions per kilometer traveled on average. Diesel is significantly higher in terms of the environmental impact; over the same distance, gasoline cars produce close to 150 grams.
In terms of CO2 emissions, electric cars are already ahead today, and they will likely increase their lead significantly in the coming years. In view of Germany’s climate policy and the ongoing energy revolution, the Federal Ministry for the Environment forecasts an even better footprint for 2025. For example, CO2 emissions for the same vehicle type would fall below 50 grams per kilometer traveled. Although development on diesel and gasoline vehicles also continues, there is little room for improving their environmental footprint. The footprint could even become worse if the resources needed to run them are increasingly extracted from tar sands or using fracking.
Drivers of electric cars definitely have the ability to influence how environmentally friendly their vehicle is. They can source the electricity for their vehicles from suppliers that focus on renewable energy sources, like Vattenfall.
The main problem with electromobility from an environmental perspective relate to production, maintenance, and disposal. It requires a lot of energy to produce batteries, in particular. In addition, resources such as lithium that are comparatively scarce must be extracted in large quantities. It is also a challenge to dispose of batteries.
However, adding up the impact of production, maintenance, disposal, operation, and energy supply, you see the following: Electric cars have a lower overall impact even today. In terms of CO2, they perform 16 percent better than the traditional diesel vehicle and 27 percent better than the average gasoline-powered car. The Federal Ministry for the Environment forecasts an advantage of 32 and 40 percent, respectively, for 2025.
In addition to greenhouse emissions, different vehicle types also have different effects on human health. In particular, fine particulate matter and nitrogen oxide emissions are garnering increased attention. Here too, electric cars cause (almost) no harmful effects. They emit no exhaust. Only small amounts of fine particulate matter are released into the air through tire and brake abrasion. However, electric cars produce slightly more fine particulate matter than gasoline, diesel, and hybrids on the whole – especially during production. In addition, nitrogen oxide emissions are higher during the production of electric cars and in the provision of energy. However, since there are no direct exhaust emissions, electric cars still score significantly higher in terms of the harmful effects they have than other types of vehicles.
Our fact-checking shows: Electric vehicles are well ahead of their gas and diesel competitors in terms of climate-relevant emissions. The environmental footprint will continue to improve in the coming years – as a result of climate policy and the energy revolution, more support for electromobility, and a further increase in environmental awareness in society.
Source for the figures (in German):