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Are electric cars really better for the environment?

Are electric cars better for the environment?

Electric cars are better for the environment because they have zero harmful carbon dioxide (CO2) tailpipe emissions - and indeed zero tailpipes - as opposed to petrol-powered internal-combustion-engined (ICE) vehicles, which produce environmentally harmful CO2 emissions. 

When looking at electric cars vs petrol cars, the facts are in: the former is a greener option while the latter causes a hosts of problems thanks to car pollution that adds to the effects of global warming. 

Just how environmentally-friendly are Electric Vehicles (EVs), though? The answer is “quite”, or “reasonably” or at very least “better than the other options”. The fact is they still produce a carbon footprint - due to the energy used to manufacture them, and depending on where you’re sourcing the electricity with which to power them - and thus they can’t be considered 100 per cent green cars. (Although Polestar has pledged to build a new factory in China that will allow it to produce the world’s first entirely carbon-neutral vehicle.)

But before we get to that, let’s take a look at how gas-guzzling ICE vehicles are effecting the environment, and why there are disadvantages to driving them when taking the health of the planet into consideration. 

How do cars affect the environment?

The principal emissions from petrol and diesel-powered ICE vehicles are climate-change-causing greenhouse gases like methane, nitrous oxide and CO2, although it’s the latter that is the primary harmful greenhouse gas that is emitted. 

This doesn’t mean all cars emit the same amount of CO2, though: that depends on both the type and amount of fuel the vehicle consumes. 

There’s also the matter of air pollution: cars also emit carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, volatile organic compounds and benzene into the environment, which can cause smog and adversely effect human health, sometimes even causing death. 

A recent report found that transport accounts for around one-fifth of global CO2 emissions, and of that, road travel accounts for three-quarters of emissions - primarily passenger vehicles, like cars and buses, which contribute 45.1 per cent, with 29.4 per cent coming from trucks used to carry freight.

With the average passenger car estimated to release around 4.6 metric tonnes of CO2 per year, it’s obvious that a move away from ICE vehicles is imperative if we want to create a positive future for the planet. 

Are electric cars environmentally friendly?

The short answer is “mostly”.  

And just how are electric cars better for the environment, you may wonder? 

It all comes down to an EV’s power source: a rechargeable lithium-ion battery-pack that powers an electric motor, completely doing away with the need for any fossil fuels. 

This means that all-electric, battery-powered EVs produce no harmful tailpipe emissions, such as various oxides of nitrogen, which kill thousands of people every year. 

EVs also have far less moving parts than a typical ICE vehicle, which reduces the need for the use and disposal of environmentally harmful motor oil. 

It’s also worth noting that hybrid and Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs) still produce harmful tailpipe emissions since each type of car works with both an internal combustion engine and a battery-powered electric motor

Are there any disadvantages to driving electric cars? 

The short answer is “yes.” 

The information gleaned from looking at the comparative environmental life cycle assessment of an EV shows that some aspects of EVs are environmentally harmful, and they’re not as low-pollution as you might assume.

Firstly, where the electricity that’s used to power your EV comes from has a significant impact on its overall carbon footprint. 

If it’s from a renewable energy source - like solar or wind power - you’re keeping it green. 

If the electricity comes from a power plant that burns fossil fuels to produce energy, you’re clearly not going to be able to proudly claim your EV is 100 per cent planet-saving. 

To varying degrees, the production of EVs and the batteries that power them rely on precious rare-earth elements, including neodymium, lanthanum, terbium, and dysprosium, as well as other critical metals such as lithium and cobalt. Digging them up isn’t exactly a positive experience for the planet - the emissions from the trucks involved alone would be a negative.  

There are also the pollutants that are released into the environment when EVs and batteries are mass-produced, which is another cross against electric cars having a completely nil carbon footprint. 

EVs are also heavier than ICE cars, due to the battery-packs they’re carrying, and this additional weight has the potential to produce more tyre, brake, and road dust, although the regenerative braking technology used in many EVs could potentially reduce brake-particulate pollution.

Conclusion: are EVs or ICE vehicles better for the environment? 

Although EVs have many benefits and are better for the environment in the long-term, the truth is that ICE vehicles currently have a cleaner production process, although EVs have a far cleaner operational stage. 

Overall, EVs are the more environmentally friendly choice of the two, although drivers would be wise to seek out electricity that comes from renewable energy sources like wind and solar, or from low-carbon power sources like nuclear energy and hydropower, if they’re to significantly reduce their carbon footprint. 

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