Are electric cars really better for the environment than petrol or diesel?

15 June 2021 | Celia Topping

Are electric cars any better for the environment than their petrol or diesel counterparts? Find out about the lifecycle of electric vehicles in our revealing article. 

Electric vehicles (EVs) are clean, green, zero-emission machines – but are they really as clean as they’re made out to be? After all, there’s more to a car’s environmental credentials than just whether or not it’s polluting the air with exhaust fumes. 

Fully electric cars, known as Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs), may have zero emissions while they’re on the road, but what about the CO2 emissions produced when they’re made? Or the environmental impact of the lithium-ion batteries they run on? And let’s not forget how much electricity they actually use – and where that electricity comes from.

Thinking of buying an electric car? Read our article on "Things to consider when buying an electric car" by OVO's resident EV expert, owner and enthusiast, Chris Britton. 

Let’s take a fresh look at the entire lifecycle of EVs, and find out – are electric cars really better for our planet?

Benefits of electric vehicles on the environment

No car can really benefit the environment – unless it suddenly starts planting trees and absorbing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere! But EVs are certainly less damaging to the environment than traditional cars. Here’s how:

  • EVs run on batteries instead of fossil fuels like petrol and diesel. Which means they don’t emit vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the air from their tailpipes (a major cause of climate change).
  • No tailpipe fumes also means no nasty air pollutants like sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx) or particulate matter (PM) – which are all harmful to our health. 
  • With the quiet hum of an EV, noise pollution from our roads is massively reduced.

How environmentally-friendly is the manufacture of electric cars?

Essentially, the manufacture of an EV is similar to that of a regular car. Currently, many of the same raw materials need to be mined, refined and transported during their assembly and production. 

Of course, EVs don’t have an engine – but what they do have is a lithium-ion battery. And therein lies the biggest problem, because it’s the manufacture of the battery that causes more than a third of an EV’s lifecycle carbon emissions.

In fact, EVs create fractionally more emissions than regular cars during the manufacturing process. But crucially, these emissions are balanced out later in the EV's lifecycle. Read on to find out how. 

How does the production of electric car batteries impact the environment?

are electric cars really any better for the environment?

EV batteries contain a few essential raw materials, such as nickel and cobalt – which have to be extracted from underground. Unfortunately, the process of mining these materials creates a lot of emissions. 

Also, batteries are often made in countries where the electricity grid is powered by fossil fuels rather than sustainable sources. Currently, around half the emissions from making a battery come from the electricity used in manufacturing and assembling them – vastly increasing an EV’s carbon footprint

Yet the good news is, within 2 years of driving an EV (using renewable electricity), the carbon emitted during manufacture will be ‘paid off’. Unlike conventional cars, which pump out carbon emissions for the rest of their working lives. 

As countries gradually decarbonise their grids to meet their climate goals, there’ll be fewer emissions from the manufacturing process. Plus, as technology evolves, manufacturing will become even more efficient. And that means fewer carbon emissions in the EV's lifecycle. 

To use an example, while the emissions created during manufacture of a Nissan Leaf are higher, it only takes 2 years to repay that ‘debt’ once it’s out on the road. That’s because the Leaf emits three times less CO2 in its lifetime than an average conventional car in the UK. 

What happens to electric car batteries when they can no longer power a car?

Lithium-ion batteries – which are like a much bigger, more powerful version of a smartphone battery – can power a car for around 15-20 years. And while they’re big polluters during production, they create zero emissions during their working life in an EV. 

So what happens when a battery reaches retirement age? Landfill is the last resort. That’s because it’s a waste of the rare materials from which they’re made – plus they can contaminate the soil. Instead, there are 2 far greener options:

Reusing EV batteries

Once an EV battery is no longer capable of powering a car, it can be reused for energy storage in the home, workplace or electricity network. Renewable energies such as wind or solar power can all be stored in EV batteries. Which is brilliant news for the grid, as it takes pressure off in peak times. 

It could even be possible for the factories that made them to be powered by the very same batteries when their time on the road is up. The mind boggles! 

Last year, Nissan launched XStorage, giving old Nissan Leaf car batteries a new lease of life as energy storage systems for home and workplace. 

Recycling EV batteries

Alas, batteries can’t be reused forever. Eventually they’ll wear out. But, the rare materials they’re made from can still hold potential. 

We haven’t quite invented a process for recycling a battery’s precious metals. Yet! But once battery recycling becomes more efficient, there’ll be less need to extract so much rare raw material from the ground. Happily, that means EVs will have even less environmental impact in the future. It’s even possible that the whole lifecycle could become circular!

Volkswagen has already begun a battery recycling programme of this kind, taking valuable raw materials from old batteries to put back into the manufacturing process. Clever stuff!

What about the electricity needed to charge an electric car?

charging an electric car

If you'd like to find out how much it would cost to charge an electric car, we've put together a handy guide explaining all the running costs.

Plus, find out more about the various connector and plug options for charging your EV, with our how-to guide.

How does smart charging make an electric car even greener?

A smart charger can be set to power up your EV when it’s most environmentally friendly to do so. It’s so smart that it only charges your car when carbon emissions are likely to be at their lowest.

This means you’ll bring down your charging emissions by up to 22%3, making your EV more sustainable than ever.

Read more about this super-smart device in our handy guide

And what about vehicle-to-grid technology?

With our innovative two-way ‘V2G’ technology, EVs go even further than cutting CO2 emissions and reducing your carbon footprint. They put the energy stored in your EV battery back into the grid and save you money!

Read more about this ingenious idea in our informative guide. 

Are hybrid cars equally beneficial to the environment?

Hybrid cars are a halfway point between BEVs and traditional combustion engine cars. They have a battery and a fuel-powered engine.

So it naturally follows that hybrids produce fewer emissions than conventional cars – but more than BEVs. So, although they’re not emission-free, they are considerably better than a carbon-creating petrol or diesel car.  

To conclude: are electric cars better for the environment? 

There’s some solid research4 showing that electric cars have much less of an environmental impact during their lifecycle than their petrol or diesel cousins. With time, an EV's carbon footprint will shrink further, as more renewable energy enters the grid instead of fossil fuel. And that means the energy powering EVs from manufacturing to recycling can be low or no-carbon, too! 

EVs are a vital part of meeting global targets on climate change – and their green credentials will help keep global warming to well below 2C or 1.5C, in line with the Paris Agreement.

For a quieter, cleaner, greener environment, the future is definitely electric. 

If you’re considering buying an electric car, but don't know where to start, check out our guide to EVs vs hybrid and petrol cars to help you find the best one for you, or see our guide to the benefits of owning an electric car.

And if you're not sure, why not try an EV through a car club? It's like taking an extended test drive! One of our staff writers wrote all about her experience in a Beginner's guide to electric vehicles.

Sources and references:

3The Smart Charger will charge your car at times when carbon emissions are likely to be at their lowest (within the charge period that you set).  Savings based on Average Grid Carbon Intensity (gCO2/kWh) statistics published by National Grid. The carbon intensity of electricity is a measure of how much CO2 emissions are produced per kilowatt hour of electricity consumed. Savings are based on moving a three-hour charge window from 5pm to 11pm calculated over the period 01/01/2018 to 31/12/2018. Actual carbon intensity varies by hour and day due to changes in electricity demand, low carbon generation (wind, solar, hydro, nuclear, biomass) and conventional generation.