This article was updated in July 2023 to reflect the latest statistics and research.
It’s impossible to imagine our lives without cars.
From last-minute road trips, to picking the kids up from school, to visiting family in the next town over, our cars are an extension of our lives.
However, climate change has exposed our reliance on fossil fuels in how we get around. Even as public concern in combating climate change grows, the reality is that our lives are more and more tied to our cars and to the fossil fuels that power them.
Road transport alone is responsible for 17% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and has grown by 2-3% each year over the past 20 years (Mercure et al. 2018). Many are concerned that, instead of this impact dropping in line with the Paris Agreement, emissions from passenger vehicle transportation increased by 28% globally between 1995 and 2019.
There is a potential saving grace, however. Across private car ownership, public transport and truck haulage, electric vehicles (EVs) pose a significant benefit in the fight against climate change. EVs can undoubtedly take credit for improving air quality. By removing fossil-fuelled cars from our roads and the exhaust pipes accompanying them, we can reduce the quantity of toxic fumes we emit into our atmosphere. The benefits to noise pollution cannot be understated: without the need for an engine, EVs make our urban environment more peaceful and enjoyable.
But there is rising concern about the actual environmental credibility of EVs. Are they just status symbols? A greenwashed marketing scheme? Or are we simply replacing the evil we know with the evil we don't?
EVs are still new to our lives, with the first mass-produced EV sold in the UK, the Nissan Leaf, rolling into driveways in 2011. There is still plenty to learn about EVs' positive and negative impact on our lives and the planet we call home.
loveelectric was born out of a vision to strive for a world that future generations will enjoy as we have. Our pursuit of this vision drives everything we do. We want to help build a new story: one where the wind and sun power how we travel, and everyone can access clean, safe, green transport. By making EVs accessible to all, we can ensure that everyone can access a safe, efficient car that treads lighter on the world around us.
Join us as we dive into some emerging myths around EVs and their environmental credentials.
Note: if you’re looking to get started and reduce your carbon footprint now, choose your brand new electric car and get a sample quote instantly by sending an enquiry.
Myth #1: Electric cars are just as carbon-intensive as petrol or diesel cars
In the 1890s, the Global North's largest cities faced a mounting problem. For thousands of years, humans had depended on horses for transport and moving goods. Yet, as more people flocked to cities and the dependency on horse-drawn vehicles grew, so did the manure on the streets and the health problems that followed.
It was an environmental disaster: and for advocates of the newly-introduced steam engine, internal combustion engines (ICEs) were an obvious solution to the pollution literally building up on the streets.
Of course, we all know how that story has played out. History is littered with humans solving one problem while creating another – so it's no wonder some people are sceptical about EV's green credentials.
The truth is that all cars - internal combustion, hybrid, electric or hydrogen - have an upfront carbon cost. All vehicles require energy to produce: from extracting materials to the water needed in the manufacturing process to the electricity used to power the warehouses.
Replacing an ICE with an EV causes a spike in carbon emissions that can take 2-4 years to overcome by the GHG savings from the EV. As we’ll see, the battery manufacturing process is carbon-heavy, with electricity used in battery production accounting for roughly half of an EV’s total carbon emissions (ICCT, 2018).
Due to this upfront carbon cost, many advocate for drivers to use their current ICE until the end of its life cycle before looking to switch to electric. However, there is a buoyant market for used ICE cars. Even with the high upfront carbon costs, switching to electric as soon as possible reduces overall emissions, so long as your current ICE returns into the market for the remainder of its life span.
Over its lifetime, an EV will produce significantly less carbon emissions than a typical internal combustion engine (ICE) car – even when considering the relatively high emissions produced in the battery manufacturing process. For example, in 2018, a typical EV created 50% less carbon emissions than an ICE over the first 150,000 km (approx. 93,000 miles) of driving (Ahmadi, 2019) - though this can vary from 28% to 72% depending on local electricity production (EEA, 2021).
Replacing ICEs with EVs will help alleviate the most pressing environmental problem: GHG emissions from burning fossil fuels. However, no one could have foreseen this catastrophe in the making when replacing horses with ICEs – so what potential issues could we be overlooking with EVs?
First on the checklist is batteries.
Myth #2: Lithium-ion batteries are just as bad for the environment as fossil fuels
Rechargeable batteries are critical for us to transform into a climate-neutral society. Battery technology continues to improve in leaps and bounds, particularly as we have to ensure that EVs go further and faster for lower costs.
EV batteries may have a relatively high carbon cost, accounting for roughly half of an EV’s lifetime GHG emissions, but they offer the opportunity to maximise energy efficiency within a closed-loop system. What does this mean? While fossil fuels can only be burned once and must be replaced regularly - and at an increasingly alarming cost to the consumer (Bloomberg, 2022) - batteries can be recharged over and over again. And at the end of their usable life, manufacturers can use these batteries to build a brand-new battery pack or reuse them within the electricity grid.
Lithium-ion batteries are the battery of choice for EV manufacturers. They are composed of cells in which lithium ions move from the negative electrode to the positive electrode during use and back again at charging points. Battery tech is constantly evolving, getting lighter and more energy-dense (i.e. squeezing more miles of range into the same battery size).
A common misconception is that the materials required for lithium-ion batteries come from questionable and unsustainable sources. While it is true that there are challenges in transparency and sustainability in the battery supply chain, the UK Government has committed to securing a transparent, sustainable and ethical supply of raw materials, protecting the lives and livelihoods of miners (OZEV, 2022).
Another misconception is that batteries will need replacing during the car's lifetime. With EVs likely to have an average lifetime of 200,000 miles - 70,000 more miles than ICEs - this is an understandable concern for vehicle owners who have had to replace batteries in their old ICEs (Hua et al., 2021). However, current EV batteries have been shown to last through the car's expected lifetime without issue, and EV battery life expectancy is likely to improve further with technological advances in energy density (ICCT, 2018).
Some manufacturers have committed to improving battery life. Tesla, for example, is aspiring to create batteries to last one million miles (Impact Report, 2021, p. 67). At roughly five times the average lifespan of one vehicle, this battery improvement would distribute the carbon cost of each battery significantly, reducing each vehicle's environmental impact.
However, we’re still a little way off from EV batteries lasting for one million miles – so what currently happens to batteries at the end of their lifetime? There are three options available: disposal, recycling and reuse.
Disposal has such a detrimental environmental impact that, in the UK, existing regulations ban the disposal of EV batteries in landfills or by incineration (OZEV, 2022). If spent batteries were to be simply discarded, the valuable materials would be wasted and may lead to heavy metals and electrolytes leaching into the ground, contaminating soil and water – all causing irreversible environmental damage.
Instead, all batteries must either be recycled or reused. Underpinning the future of sustainable EV batteries is a circular economy model: an economic system with the goal of achieving sustainable development. It replaces the ‘end-of-life’ concept with reducing, reusing, recycling and recovering materials throughout a product's life. In the UK, battery producers must take back EV batteries free of charge and ensure they treat spent batteries at permitted facilities that meet the required recycling efficiency standards (OZEV, 2022).
Recycling allows the valuable materials in lithium-ion batteries to be salvaged and returned to the supply chain. Modelling suggests that 99% Cobalt and 93% Lithium could be recovered in a closed-loop approach typical of the circular economy, but scientists haven't yet overcome the challenge of finding a cost-effective and environmentally-friendly recycling process (Pagliaro and Meneguzzo, 2019).
In the meantime, as battery recycling technology improves, manufacturers can give EV batteries a second life by reusing them as energy storage in the electricity grid, residential services and renewable energy sources (Cusenza et al., 2019).
Until we see substantial improvements in recycling technology, manufacturers can still give EV batteries a new lease of life through reusing them as energy storage in the electricity grid, residential services and renewable energy sources. But what about the electricity that powers them? How green is our grid? And how does it stack up against petrol- or diesel- powered cars?
Myth #3: The electricity that powers electric cars is generated by fossil fuels, so any carbon savings from the car are simply being emitted elsewhere
The big promise from EVs is that there are no tailpipe GHG emissions, but electricity has to be generated somewhere - and it’s no secret that it is produced, in part, by burning fossil fuels.
There has been a steady increase in renewable energy generation over the past decades. In 2021, Scotland produced 27,467 gigawatt-hours (GWh) of renewable electricity.
With the country consuming 22,927 GWh of electricity in the same period, renewable energy production surpassed consumption by 19%. This was a huge milestone for the country's journey towards net-zero – but it isn’t the end of Scotland's energy story.
Scotland produces more electricity than it uses, including a considerable amount from fossil fuels and nuclear energy. In 2021, renewables accounted for 57% of total electricity generated in Scotland, nuclear 29.8%, and fossil fuels 9.7%. Once on the grid, electricity is electricity: it is impossible to discern what is wind-generated and what is from natural gas. There is no doubt that Scotland has a hugely positive story to tell in renewables; however, there is still more work to do to ensure sustainable electricity sources across the country power EVs.
A cleaner grid will be the most significant factor in reducing electric vehicle life-cycle emissions. As roughly half of the carbon cost of an EV comes from the electricity required in the battery manufacturing process, increased use of renewable energy and more efficient power plants equates to cleaner batteries.
While the electricity grid is moving towards renewable sources, it is unlikely to be totally decarbonised for some time. In the meantime, some EV manufacturers are looking to distance themselves from the environmental variability of national power grids by producing their own electricity. Tesla's Gigafactory Nevada, for example, manufactures and charges 35 GWh of lithium-ion batteries per year from an onsite renewable energy source (Tesla, 2021).
Like Tesla, until the grid has a greater percentage of renewable electricity, the most environmentally-friendly way to recharge your car is to produce electricity via at-home solar panels. Of course, this is currently only accessible for a small portion of the population, with price and space issues for homeowners to consider - but it is an excellent option if you can.
In any case, with ICEs powered by 100% fossil fuels (AA, 2022), powering your EV in Scotland currently offers a huge 60% carbon saving. As the renewable energy quantity continues to grow year on year, so too will the sustainability divide between traditional and electric cars.
Myth #4: Electric vehicles don’t address the tyre problem
In 1974, the US was plagued by thousands of used tyres. Used tyres had been piling up at an alarming rate. Illegal dumps popped up: some tyres caught fire, and others became breeding grounds for mosquitoes.
Florida’s Broward County approved an ambitious new project: using the unwanted rubber to construct an artificial reef. “Tyres,” a campaigner told the county, “which were an esthetic pollutant ashore, could be recycled, so to speak, to build a fishing reef at sea” (Ecosystems of South Florida, 2008). Later that year, locals enthusiastically dumped two million tyres in Fort Lauderdale’s harbour.
As we say in Scotland: “But the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”
The experiment was a spectacular failure, with very little marine life taking to the artificial reef and tyres shifting in the currents, causing damage to the natural coral reefs nearby.
As the world has become increasingly globalised, and our cities have become sprawling metropolises, our reliance on the humble tyre has only grown alongside fossil fuel use. Yet, they are critical in ensuring safety on our roads, controlling steering, braking, acceleration and a smooth driving experience.
However, as in the 1970s, tyres still pose a massive global environmental concern. Worldwide, an estimated 1.5 billion tyres are produced annually (Mashiri et al., 2015). As they cannot break down naturally, used tyres leach chemicals into the ground or risk catching fire (Mohajerani et al., 2020).
Every so often, it is claimed that EV tyres produce more particulate matter pollution than ICEs. Primarily made from crude oil, all tyres create emissions in the form of particulates - tiny rubber particles cast off into the road and atmosphere - as they wear down. A key contributing factor to the amount of particulates emitted from tyres is the weight of the car and, with their massive battery packs, some people are concerned that EVs cause extra wear on the tread. There have even been calls to introduce a new tax on EV tyres based on this belief (Express, 2022).
However, scientists have largely discredited these claims. With the recent trend towards bigger and heavier SUVs, modern EVs aren't much heavier than modern ICEs, so the wear on tyre tread is near indistinguishable. Also, as batteries become more and more energy-dense, we'll likely start to see a shift from stuffing more battery capacity into the same space toward producing batteries with similar capacity in a smaller battery, leading to a lighter car.
Tyre manufacturers are also developing special EV tyres, such as UK startup Enso's EV tyres that wear less without sacrificing grip and extend the vehicle's range more than traditional tyres (Autocar, 2022).
EVs may not solve the broader tyre problem, but the wear is broadly on par with petrol and diesel cars (unless drivers get a little throttle-happy!). Luckily, we've found more creative, less destructive ways to recycle tyres than attempting to build tyre reefs since the '70s. For example, waste rubber can be used in construction materials, including concrete, playground and sporting surfaces, and systems to reduce the impact of earthquakes (Mohajerani et al., 2020).
Finally, with most end-of-life tyres already recovered, circularity is the next step. Goodyear and Pirelli have replaced much of the petroleum-based components with renewable materials, Bridgestone has invested in developing an alternative natural source of rubber, and the Michelin Group has ambitious renewable goals and is engaged in recycling end-of-life tyres. These commitments are a step in the right direction, but, as the World Economic Forum has pointed out, circularity requires "unprecedented collaboration" (World Economic Forum, 2022). Knowledge sharing and stakeholder cooperation will be the key drivers of progress towards a circular economy for tyres.
Myth #5: I’ll just wait for hydrogen cars to become available
Like EVs, Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles (HFCV) are zero-emission vehicles with no GHG tailpipe emissions. However, instead of a battery-powered or combustion engine motor, HFCVs use an electric motor to power their wheels, transforming hydrogen gas and oxygen into power, water vapour and warm air.
The benefits are undeniable: with no tailpipe emissions and no need to rely on the energy grid, HFCVs are upheld by many as the holy grail of carbon-neutral transport.
So, who's making HFCVs, and how can you get hold of one? Toyota and Hyundai have produced hydrogen fuel cell cars, and BMW has also started testing HFCVs. Additionally, a small Welsh firm, Riversimple, is developing a two-seater HFCV. Their prototype, the Rasa, weighs just 580 kg - half the weight of a small car like a Nissan Micra.
But, the future for HFCVs isn't all roses. HFCVs currently produce CO2 and NOx emissions, meaning that the technology does not meet the UK Government's criteria to achieve 'zero emissions by tailpipe' (OZEV, 2022).
There are other emissions associated with hydrogen fuel production. Hydrogen does not occur naturally, so it must be extracted and compressed in fuel tanks and mixed with oxygen in a fuel cell stack to create electricity to power the car's motor. Currently, hydrogen is made by converting natural gas into hydrogen and carbon dioxide, so it relies on fossil fuel sources.
Future hydrogen sources include splitting water into hydrogen via electrolysis or methane gas from landfills and sewage treatment facilities (UK Hydrogen Strategy, 2021).
The UK Government expects hydrogen to play a vital role in decarbonising transport but will likely prove most effective in heavier transport modes where batteries aren’t as effective, like road freight, maritime and aviation (OZEV, 2022). Beyond its environmental credentials, HFCVs also face issues of lacking infrastructure, with just 12 hydrogen stations (UK H2Mobility, 2022) compared to the 42,000 EV charging stations across the UK (EDF, 2022).
The story of HFCVs and EVs is intertwined. Indeed, it is clear that the emissions from HFCVs are likely to drop with advances in EV tech and the increased availability of renewable power (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2014). Currently, both types of vehicles produce significantly less emissions than traditional ICEs - but, with zero current tailpipe emissions, more options available and superior current infrastructure, EVs nose past in first place.
The road ahead
In an increasingly environmentally-conscious world, understanding our tread on the globe is more critical than ever.
From trading horses for ICEs to constructing tyre reefs, it’s clear that many of our past solutions to pollution were reactive rather than proactive.
EVs, however, are a clear solution to our long-term concern: they cut tailpipe emissions to zero, leading to cleaner air, greener spaces and a healthier environment for all. Undoubtedly, an electrified car fleet is critical to achieving our joint goal to regenerate our planet.
But, there is still work to do. To say that we’re already there overlooks humanity’s ability to innovate at pace – and EV technology is improving at unbelievable speeds.
As the electricity grid across the world incorporates more renewable sources, and advances toward a fully circular model for tyres and batteries are made, electric cars will become less and less impactful on the world around us.
Choosing an EV over an ICE is the single biggest decision you can make to reduce your carbon footprint. Choosing to loveelectric is the cheapest way to make that change.
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