Improving Air quality

It might sound obvious, but pure electric cars and vans do not pump out harmful emissions into the air we breathe whilst being driven (and in fact, don’t even have an exhaust pipe). Plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) combine an electric motor with an efficient petrol or diesel engine, and so usually produce some tailpipe emissions over the course of a journey; although on average at a far lower level than conventional petrol or diesel cars. PHEVs can also drive in ‘electric only’ mode for shorter distances, which means zero tailpipe emissions. This helps to keep the air we all breathe clean, particularly at the roadsides and in urban areas where air quality can be worse. Clean air is one of the most basic requirements of a healthy environment for us all to live, work and bring up families. According to Public Health England, air quality is the largest environmental risk to public health in the UK. Switching to an electric car or van means playing your part in cleaning up the air we all breathe. You can explore the ambient air quality in your area here.

Reducing Climate Change

Transport accounts for around a quarter of the UK’s carbon emissions, a key contributor to climate change. Pure electric vehicles don’t produce any greenhouse gas exhaust emissions whilst being driven and those from plug-in hybrids are significantly lower than from a traditional petrol or diesel car. Switching to an electric car or van therefore makes it easy for drivers to reduce their carbon footprint and play a part in protecting the future of our planet The UK is a world leader in tackling climate change and, so far, we have cut our economy’s emissions by more than a third while growing our economy by over two thirds. The UK Government is committed to continuing to drive down emissions and has legally binding targets to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 (compared to 1990 levels).

But How Green are Electric Cars Really?

Most people agree that pure electric cars can dramatically reduce air pollution from tailpipe emissions. But can they also reduce overall CO2 emissions when the electricity they use comes from fossil fuels? The short answer is yes. A recent lifecycle analysis of electric vehicles showed that even when powered by the most carbon intensive electricity in Europe, they emit fewer greenhouse gases than a conventional vehicle. The calculation includes the carbon output from the production of the vehicle’s battery. In the UK, analysis by Drax (Electric Insights Quarterly – Q2 2017) shows how green plug-in vehicles can be, using the average UK electricity mix during each period. This reflects the longer-term situation if the extra demand from electric vehicles was met by building the same mix of power stations as currently exists. Charging the BMW i3 back in 2012 would have created 81g of CO2 per km driven. However, by the Summer of 2017 this had fallen to 27 g/km for the BMW i3, and 32 g/km for the Nissan LEAF. In other words, electric cars are ‘greener’ than their average petrol or diesel equivalent, even when taking the electricity generation into account. This is also backed-up by the ‘JEC 2014 Well-to Wheel report’, which found that driving a pure electric car produces substantially lower greenhouse gases than their petrol or diesel equivalents, when taking into account how the electricity it uses is generated, together with the production of petrol and diesel. The good news is that these emissions’ savings will increase further as the UK switches to more renewable and nuclear electricity generation: Government figures show that in 2016, 34% of the UK’s electricity generating capacity was renewable and there were three months when low carbon energy accounted for 50% of the electricity generated, with periods when there was no coal fired generation whatsoever. Between April and June 2017 the figures are even better, with output from all low-carbon sources (including nuclear and imports from France) meeting 56% of demand over the quarter (Drax Electric Insights Quarterly – Q2 2017). It’s also worth remembering that the emission figures quoted for traditional combustion engine cars takes no account of the considerable energy required (and emissions produced) to extract, refine and manufacture the petrol or diesel they consume.

What about the Batteries?

Batteries are a significant part of an electric car, and their production does have an environmental impact. However, studies have shown that the initial impact of battery manufacture can be offset by the increased efficiency and emissions savings over the life of an electric car. The 2013 Ricardo-AEA report found that, over an average whole lifecycle, pure electric vehicles produce lower greenhouse gas emissions than internal combustion engine vehicles. There are also opportunities for ‘second-life’ uses of batteries – such as storing electricity generated by excess renewable energy in domestic settings. Battery recycling ensures that the valuable materials used can be placed back into the production cycle.

Have we enough Lithium and ‘Rare Earths’?

A core component of EV batteries is lithium, but contrary to what you might hear, studies have shown lithium is relatively abundant and there are decades worth of deposits in existing mines. The total projected demand for electric car batteries will require a substantial increase in lithium production in the 2020s. But studies have indicated reserves in existing mines are sufficient to satisfy cumulative demand to 2050. The lithium content of batteries is, in principle, recyclable an unlimited number of times. The ‘rare’ earth metals (specifically neodymium and dysprosium) which are used in the high performance permanent magnets in some EV motors aren’t especially rare; and aren’t needed at all in the AC induction motors used by some manufacturers. As technology develops further, it is likely that the use of these metals will be reduced. As this study puts it, “critical metals and rare earth minerals will not be constrained in the coming decades and won’t stop the EV transition, as some have argued”.