The Electric Car Debate: Are They Really Doing the Environment a Favor?

Posted on December 3rd, 2013 by

The petroleum-guzzling transport system is a big factor in the environmental crisis. So no wonder electric vehicles have been heralded as a tide turner.

But are they all that green?

Criticism has surfaced that electric vehicles have a dirty little secret, which is that their clean-cut green image isn’t as well-deserved as previously thought.

Opinion is divided between the electric vehicle being a green panacea that will usher in a sustainable transport system, and it being no better than other vehicles on the road, if not worse.

So which is it? Well, like many matters – it depends. There are two main factors to look at.

The battery

Electric vehicles (EVs) require far more energy to manufacture than traditional internal combustion engines (ICVs). Twice as much actually.  This is particularly because of the EV’s battery.

So when you compare the emissions of electric and ICVs, you have to take into account that EVs start off with a serious handicap.

However, this disparity can be offset over the EV’s lifespan if it’s driven long enough. The longer it’s used the more

environmentally-friendly it becomes.

However, so long as it’s being powered by the right juice.

 The grid

People were excited at the prospect that a vehicle didn’t have to run on fossil fuels, but on electricity instead. They were so excited that they seemed to forget that electricity is typically still generated by fossil fuels, such as coal and lignite.

So basically, EVs indirectly still run on fossil fuel.

Then again, not always. It depends on the electric grid of the region. If you’re driving in a region where the electric grid is predominantly powered by clean, alternative energies, then the electric car runs on clean fuel. If the local grid relies on coal or lignite plants, then the vehicle is not going to be green at all.

In fact, according to a study, in countries like South Africa, India, and China where the electric grid is carbon heavy, EVs emit as much carbon as ICVs.

If we look at countries that are less carbon-heavy though – like Japan, Germany, and Italy – EVs are as green as petrol hybrids. The US grid lies somewhere between average and heavy carbon.

In countries like Norway, Switzerland, Brazil and France, however, which are low-carbon because the electric grid is to a larger extent powered by renewables, EVs really are a green transport solution.

So is the EV green or not?

While the EV does require substantial energy to manufacture, this can be offset over its life cycle if it runs cleaner than an ICV. So what the matter basically comes down to is how clean the electric grid is. In other words, you need to get the foundation right first. In countries where alternative energies like wind and solar are relied on, the electric vehicle can be a green transport solution. In countries where there hasn’t been a shift to green energies, the electric vehicle isn’t going to live up to its reputation.

At the end of the day, though, even if one argues against its current sustainability, one still has to admit that the EV has a greener future than the ICV. While ICVs certainly have become more fuel efficient, at the end of the day they will always run on fossil fuels. EVs on the other hand, in theory, can become totally green. The electric vehicle thus provides a means of moving away from a petrol- and diesel-based transport system, which is what our environment needs right now.


Contributed by Queenie Bates. She writes on behalf of Eco Town, a blog dedicated to all things green and sustainable. When researching and writing on a subject, like electric vehicles, she tries to look at a situation from all sides.

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One Person has left comments on this post

» Annie Craven said: { Dec 11, 2013 - 02:12:44 }

Thanks for sharing! I always thought that electric vehicles were going to be the next thing, you have to drive it for years before it starts not effecting the environment. They are a good start, but they leave room for improvement, let’s find a vehicle that will never need fossil fuels.

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