EVs reduce emissions, study finds

Moving Well | Tim Nicholson | Posted on 12 May 2020

New study finds choosing electric cars over fossil fuels will reduce carbon emissions.

We’ve all heard that bloke at a barbecue banging on about how electric vehicles produce way more emissions over their lifetime than a regular petrol or diesel-powered car. It goes something like: “That new Tesla is actually way worse for the environment than my 15-year-old diesel HiLux. EVs are just a big scam.”

The theory is that the emissions produced during vehicle manufacturing, combined with the electricity used to power the car in areas where coal is still the main source of energy, mean EVs are bigger polluters. 

Close up of car exhaust pollution
The answer is clear: to reduce carbon emissions, we should choose electric cars.

But a recent study has shown that EVs are better for the environment over their total life cycle than cars with internal combustion engines.

A study published in Nature Sustainability by Radboud University with the universities of Exeter and Cambridge looked at passenger vehicles and household heating which, combined, account for about a quarter of all fossil-fuel emissions.

Researchers found that in 53 of 59 global regions, which make up 95 per cent of the world including the United States, China and most of Europe, EVs and electric household heat pumps already produce fewer emissions and are better for the environment than their fossil-fuel alternatives.

Some exceptions include countries like Poland where energy is still mostly generated from coal. In countries like Sweden, where most electricity is sourced from renewables, the average lifetime emissions from EVs are about 70 per cent lower than petrol cars.

The study found that even inefficient EVs will be responsible for fewer emissions than most new petrol cars in most countries in a few years’ time as electricity generation becomes less carbon intensive. 

Projections detailed in the study show that every second car on the road could be an EV by 2050, which would reduce global emissions by about 1.5 gigatons a year – equivalent to the total current CO2 emissions of Russia.

Close up of car exhaust
Close up of EV plugged into charger

The study’s lead author, environmental scientist Florian Knobloch, says there is a very simple take-out from the study.

“The answer is clear: to reduce carbon emissions, we should choose electric cars ... over fossil-fuel alternatives,” he says.

“We have run the numbers for all around the world, looking at a whole range of cars and heating systems. Even in our worst-case scenario, there would be a reduction in emissions in almost all cases. This insight should be very useful for policy-makers.”

While many countries are rapidly shifting to renewable energy, most Australian states and territories are lagging behind. Notable exceptions are the ACT (100 per cent), Tasmania (90 per cent) and South Australia (just over 50 per cent).

Last year, energy analysts RepuTex conducted modelling that showed Australia was on track to achieve 50 per cent renewable electricity by 2030, even if there is no change to federal energy policies. 

The CEO of Australia’s Electric Vehicle Council, Behyad Jafari, says buying an EV will always be better for the environment locally, regardless of the energy source.

“The good news for Australians is they can buy an EV and go 100 per cent zero emissions today, by choosing to power their car with renewable energy. If you’re looking to buy a new car, no matter what the source, an electric vehicle is the best option for the environment.

“That means the EV is better on emissions today and every year as more renewables take over the grid – that same car gets better and better.”