The use of electric means of transport can ensure a reduction in polluting emissions attributable to traditional vehicles. Furthermore, as the share of electricity produced from renewable energy sources increases, the impacts of electric vehicles would be further minimized. This was demonstrated by a Life-Cycle Assessment study carried out by the European Environment Agency.
In order to comply with the objectives set by the Paris Agreement, by 2030, the countries of the EU will inevitably have to invest more decisively in renewable energy sources to encourage decarbonisation.
Therefore, foreseeing a future physiological growth in the share of electricity produced from renewable sources, it is clear that the electricity transport sector will also become more sustainable and less polluting.
However, in order to be able to establish with certainty whether an electric car may be able to pollute less than a traditional car, it is necessary to carry out a study capable of evaluating the impacts of vehicles considering their entire life cycle. In this regard, the European Environment Agency has carried out a Life Cycle Assessment study with the aim of comparing the impacts between a traditional vehicle and another electric vehicle, at every stage of their life.
Traditional car vs electric car: which one pollutes less?
In order to analyze the results of the study, it must first be remembered that a Life Cycle Assessment study allows you to analyze the flow of materials and energy in all phases of the life of a product, process or service (extraction of resources, production of materials, manufacture of products, consumption / use and “end of life” of the product).
Since every good, service or, in general, every product has its own “life”, characterized by various phases, which produce polluting emissions, the LCA methodology allows to identify the most impacting phases, intervene on them and reduce the environmental load.
It is also useful to compare two different types of products to understand which is more or less polluting, as in the case of the study conducted by the European Environment Agency.
From the EEA’s Report “Electric vehicles from life cycle and circular economy perspectives”, it emerges that, in Europe, electric cars, during their entire life cycle, guarantee a reduction in greenhouse gas missions ranging from 17% to 30%, compared to a similar model powered by petrol or diesel.
This estimate was obtained considering the European mix of renewable and non-renewable energy sources used to produce electricity.
If we consider only the phases of raw material extraction and production, it is clear from the Report that greenhouse gas emissions are higher for electric cars than for traditional cars. This is due to both the emissions associated with the extraction and processing of metals (lithium, cobalt, nickel, etc.) and those attributable to coal-fired power plants to produce electricity.
However, during the use phase, electric cars can potentially offset the major impacts attributable to the previous two phases, making them much less polluting than traditional cars. This obviously depends on the energy mix used to produce electricity.
Assuming, for example, to be able to produce electricity in a totally sustainable and clean way, using wind energy, the emissions of the electric car’s life cycle could be reduced by 90% compared to the traditional car.
While for the final phase of the life of the cars, the impacts are minimal compared to the previous phases of the LCA study, but we can still obtain from it, ideas to improve the results of the study.
Electric cars, therefore, are able to greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and local air pollution, but still have important negative impacts related to the ecosystem and human toxicity.
However, to make an electric car much more efficient, it is necessary to invest more in the circular economy.
Starting, for example, from the construction of the batteries. They need to be designed in such a way as to make recycling and reuse easier. In this way, the impacts could be reduced in the first phase (less raw materials used) and also in the final phase (much easier disposal).
To further reduce production impacts, cars and batteries should be manufactured with materials and components that allow for an effective maintenance process in order to increase the useful life of the vehicle.
Furthermore, with the reduction of the use of fossil fuels and the increase in the percentage of use of renewable energy sources for the production of electricity, the disadvantages that emerged from the LCA study could be limited.
With the production of electricity from renewable sources, in fact, the environmental impacts of electric cars, during the entire span of their life cycle, would become minimal.