How green is your electric vehicle?

Yellow electric car

Welcome to your new electric car

Let’s call it the FT EV Mark 1

It looks a lot like your petrol-engine car

… but under the bonnet, it’s a different beast

Car with transparent body showing combustion engine inside

The engine in your old car had around 2,000 moving parts

In your electric vehicle (EV), there are just 20

You’ll no longer have to change the oil or worry about using the wrong fuel

Say goodbye to familiar vehicle parts, some of which have been part of the car for over a century

And hello to an array of new technology systems:

Car with transparent body showing electric battery and charging system

Battery and charging

Car with transparent body showing all-electric motor

All-electric motor

Car with transparent body showing regenerative braking system

Regenerative braking,
which partially recharges the battery

So your new EV is simpler, smarter and quieter

But is it cleaner?

The short answer is yes — the emissions from your new EV will be less than if you bought a petrol or diesel car — and in the future, they are likely to be significantly lower

But the reality is also complicated

There are lots of ways in which your new EV might not be as green as you had hoped or realised

While driving, the lack of exhaust fumes might mean it feels cleaner

But before it leaves the factory your new EV is responsible for a large volume of carbon dioxide emissions — far more, in fact, than the petrol car you just traded in

One study in China suggests the CO2 produced when making an EV is 60 per cent higher than from combustion models

Much of this is down to the battery

Car with transparent body battery

A battery may be easier to make than a piston-driven petrol engine, but it uses some dirty materials

These all have to be mined and usually smelted — often in remote locations, sometimes in questionable conditions

Lithium, predominantly mined in Chile and Australia, is at the heart of the battery

Lithium ions travel around the battery carrying the charge

Map highlights Chile and Australia — where lithium is predominantly mined

Cobalt, another key component of a lithium-ion battery, is mostly mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Map highlights the Democratic Republic of Congo, where cobalt is mostly mined

Indonesia and the Philippines are the top two producers of nickel — also used widely in lithium-ion batteries

Map highlights Indonesia and the Philippines — the top two producers of nickel

Mining causes its own emissions: between five and 15 tonnes of CO2 are produced per tonne of lithium extracted

This is equal to the total electricity usage of between one and two US homes across a whole year

Over the next 10 years, demand for both lithium and cobalt is predicted to surge

Global demand for use in electric car batteries
Metric tonnes
Lithium carbonate equivalent
Source: BloombergNEF

Lithium, cobalt and the other battery materials are often transported thousands of miles in various stages of the production process, before they can be made into cells

Cells are the building blocks of batteries

But even at this stage, there is more work to be done

Car with transparent body and battery casing showing cells

First the cells are put into modules

Which are then made into the battery pack

The process of turning raw materials into a battery is energy-sapping — Nissan’s new battery factory in Sunderland will require its own £80m power grid

Nissan’s new power grid

Studies say emissions from all stages of battery production account for more than a third of the CO2 emitted during the process of making your EV

With EV sales set to increase rapidly, the CO2 impact of the production process will grow significantly

Global EV sales
Source: BloombergNEF

All this before it’s driven a single silent mile

But there is more

The green impact of the car — the reason you are buying it — is partly dependent on the electricity that goes into it

Charge your car in a country where much of the grid is powered by renewables such as wind or solar, and you cut your carbon footprint significantly

Charge it in a country using coal power — such as China, the world’s largest EV market — and it’s the equivalent of burning two-thirds of a tank of gasoline

And that’s without considering what we do with the batteries at the end of their lives — although some in the industry think they can be used for home energy storage

Many of the countries that are driving EV sales — such as the UK and Germany — are on a mission to switch to green energy

But right now, the reduction in your emissions from buying a battery-powered vehicle depends heavily on where you live

And that is not the only environmental impact linked to using a battery-powered vehicle

As you drive, thousands of tiny particles from the tyres are released into the atmosphere

Car with transparent body showing highlighted back wheel

Some studies suggest that EVs could produce more particles from tyre wear than combustion-powered vehicles, although more research is needed

This is because EVs are generally heavier, which returns us to the biggest change in the car — the battery

The smallest available battery on a Nissan Leaf, an entry-level EV, weighs 300kg, while the higher-end Jaguar I-Pace battery weighs more than half a tonne — the equivalent of the original British Mini

Entry level battery weight
Higher-end battery weights

So … what’s the point?
Why not buy a gas-guzzling 4x4?

Despite the significant improvements that need to be made to manufacturing there is evidence that, even today, overall EVs are cleaner than traditional alternatives

A 2021 study by the International Council on Clean Transportation estimates that with today’s power plants providing the energy the emissions from an EV across its whole lifecycle — from manufacturing to miles on the road — are 66-69 per cent below those of petrol cars in Europe

In the US, the emissions from EVs are 60-68 per cent lower, the study shows, while in China the gap is 37-45 per cent. In India, it’s 19–34 per cent

As energy becomes cleaner across the globe, that gap is expected to widen

Split bar chart displays the contrasting sources of electricity available in China and Europe, with coal making up more than 60 per cent of the mix in China and renewables just under 30 per cent. In Europe, renewable energy accounts for more than 40 per cent of the mix; coal 14 per cent
Line chart shows how the share of electricity in Europe that will come from renewable energy sources is projected to rise from 40 per cent in 2020 to 75 per cent in 2050

Which means that 30 years from now EVs will produce significantly less CO2 than petrol and diesel vehicles (if the latter are still on sale)

For the world to reach net zero CO2 emissions by 2050, the International Energy Agency estimates that electric models need to make up 60 per cent of global car sales by 2030

But until then, there is a lot of work still to be done — to reduce the size of batteries, to use fewer metals that require intensive mining in distant locations, to reduce the CO2output of the extraction process and to make the energy source for EVs greener

Maybe one day an electric vehicle really will have a minimal environmental impact

Back end of car showing the number plate

But there is a long — and often dirty — road to travel first


The 2017 study in China of CO2 emissions from producing an EV compared with a combustion model was by Qiao et al

The estimate of lithium extraction CO2 emissions was by the consultancy Minviro

A 2018 European Parliament report reviewed multiple studies to estimate the proportion of EV production emissions accounted for by the battery

The conclusion that charging an EV in China is the equivalent to burning two-thirds of a tank of gasoline was based on International Council on Clean Transportation data

The studies suggesting EVs could produce more particle emissions from tyre wear than combustion-powered vehicles are summarised in a 2020 OECD report

The 2021 study comparing the lifecycle emissions of combustion engine and electric vehicles was by the International Council on Clean Transportation

This article has been amended since first publication to use a more recent estimate of an electric vehicle's life cycle emissions in Europe and to include comparisons for the US, China and India

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
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