A new study from the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), a worldwide nonprofit research group, analyzes the life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions of passenger cars to determine the climate impact of electric vehicles (EVs) versus internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. A vehicle's life cycle begins with gathering raw materials for production and ends when taken out of service.
To that end, some critics of the worldwide shift to e-mobility and electrified transportation have suggested EVs are less environmentally friendly overall than vehicles relying on fossil fuels due to more carbon-intensive manufacturing and charging processes. However, the ICCT study confirms a very opposite reality.
"We have a lot of lobby work from parts of the automotive industry saying that electric vehicles are not that much better if you take into account the electricity production and the battery production. We wanted to look into this and see whether these arguments are true," said Georg Bieker, a researcher at ICCT.
Those arguments may hold up initially at the mining and manufacturing stages of building an EV but do not sustain throughout the vehicle's life. According to Bieker, there is a threshold—typically one year—at which point the emissions an EV saves from everyday driving make it the better choice for the environment over a gas-powered vehicle.
The study's findings bring to light that battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and fuel-cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) powered by renewable energy sources can maintain the low level of carbon emissions needed to align with the Paris Accord's goal of keeping global warming below two degrees centigrade. The study also asserts there is "no realistic pathway to that goal that relies on combustion-engine vehicles, including hybrids of any sort."
The study focused on Europe, the United States, China, and India, which account for about 70 percent of new-car sales worldwide. According to the data, lifetime greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) for an EV in all four markets were significantly lower than a gas-powered vehicle. In Europe, an EV produces between 66 to 69 percent fewer emissions, while the U.S. results are 60 to 68 percent lower. Although the divide is not as wide, EV emissions in China are 37 to 45 percent lower. India saw 19 to 34 percent fewer emissions from EVs.
"One important result of the analysis is to show that life-cycle emissions trends are similar in all four regions, despite the differences among them in vehicle mix, grid mix, and so on. Already for cars registered today, BEVs have better relative GHG emissions performance everywhere than conventional vehicles," said ICCT Deputy Director Rachel Muncrief.
The ICCT analysis comes when most major global automakers from Audi to Volvo have put forth electrification strategies that significantly reduce or eliminate fossil fuel-powered vehicles in the foreseeable future. The study suggests that manufacturers that continue to build gas-powered cars will be working against the efforts of world governments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to near zero in the next 30 years.