To prevent climate breakdown, we need to reduce carbon emissions. And electric vehicles (EVs) are a key technology that will enable us to cut emissions – alongside reducing the number of cars on the road by supporting walking, cycling and public transport.  

Based on research from 2019, petrol and diesel powered passenger cars are responsible for around 67 million tonnes of carbon emissions each year. That’s roughly 12% of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions. 

Many people question whether electric cars are actually more environmentally friendly than petrol and diesel-powered ones. The short answer is, yes. Here are a few reasons why. 

EVs quickly pay back the carbon emitted while building them 

It’s true that the average new electric car takes slightly more energy to manufacture than a petrol or diesel car, largely due to building the battery.

However, according to research by Carbon Brief, a new Nissan Leaf (one of the best-selling electric car models in the UK) will pay back the carbon emitted during manufacturing after less than two years of driving. 

Over an average 12 -year lifetime, the EV will emit 30% less carbon than a conventional car, based on an average annual driving distance of around 7,800km, for cars driven in the UK. If you drive more, it will pay back even quicker. 

In comparison, a petrol or diesel car will never pay back the emissions caused during the manufacturing process, and will only add to these each time it’s driven.  

EVs have no direct tailpipe emissions 

Conventional cars burn fossil fuels, which releases carbon dioxide along with pollutants such as nitrogen oxides which cause a wide range of health problems. In comparison, an electric car causes zero direct tailpipe emissions. 

EVs will keep getting greener with the electricity grid

While electric cars don’t directly burn fuel for power, they have indirect carbon emissions caused by generating the electricity that it takes to power them.

Across over 90% of the world, charging an EV causes fewer carbon emissions than burning petrol or diesel. In countries with a high proportion of low carbon and renewable power sources feeding the electricity grid, EVs are substantially greener. For example, in France and Sweden they emit 70% less carbon over their lifetime than a conventional car.  

If you’re with Good Energy, you can be confident that the electricity your EV uses is matched 100% renewable, making it even greener.

EV batteries have an environmental impact, but are getting greener 

EVs require lithium-ion batteries, which are manufactured using rare earth metals and minerals like cobalt, which is mined in overexploited countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo. Battery manufacturers are currently developing batteries that require fewer resources, but there’s no denying that they do carry an ethical cost – just like other goods such as clothes and electronics.  

Like with other products, you can research electric car manufacturers using resources such as Ethical Consumer, to find out whether they have policies to reduce environmental impact and protect workers’ rights and welfare. You could also research getting a second hand EV.  

Almost all of an EV can be recycled – including the battery 

EV batteries degrade over time – however, most will keep at least 70% of their capacity even after 200,000km. This means that drivers shouldn’t unduly worry about the battery degrading over the time they have their car, unless they have an exceptionally high mileage. 

EV plugged into public charge point.

Most manufacturers recommend replacing a battery once it drops to 70% of its capacity. As that means they still have plenty of life left, recycling options include manufacturers converting them into home batteries for storing electricity generated by solar panels.  

Because EV usage is only just accelerating, manufacturers expect that in 10-15 years time there will be millions of degraded batteries to deal with. Currently, around half of an EV battery can be recycled. But it’s expected that recycling facilities will expand over the next decade, with EV manufacturers taking responsibility for reusing or recycling batteries from their own models. For example, Nissan is already using them to power automated vehicles in their factories.  

Hear more on Great Green Questions 

To hear more about electric cars and their environmental impact, listen to the first episode of the Great Green Questions podcast. Good Energy founder Juliet Davenport is joined by actor, comedian and presenter of Fully Charged, Robert Llewellyn, and comedian Eshaan Akbar, as they answer the question, can you be an environmentalist and still love cars?