Are electric cars really better for the environment?

Are electric cars really better for the environment?
Ever-increasing concerns over the green credentials of traditional combustion engines have, in part, prompted a definite shift towards electric vehicles.

According to figures released by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), sales of pure electric vehicles are consistently up when compared to the previous year.1

While the numbers remain relatively low – the electric vehicle (EV) has begun to grow rapidly, with the RAC becoming the number one provider of EV breakdown cover in the UK.

If the prospect of zero tailpipe emissions wasn’t enough, rising interest is also being fuelled by increasing affordability, widespread availability of charging points, the threat of pollution charges in city centres, scrappage incentives and government grants.

So, are electric cars as green as people think? We examine the evidence with help from the Energy Saving Trust.

Zero (tailpipe) emissions


From the moment an electric car hits the road it emits no tailpipe emissions, but will still produce some degree of pollution from tyre and brake particles. The real environmental impact though, occurs before an electric car has left the factory floor.

A report by the European Environment Agency (EEA) highlights that emissions from battery electric vehicle (BEV) production are generally higher than those from internal combustion engine vehicle (ICEV) production. 

One study2 suggests that CO2 emissions from electric car production are 59% higher than the level in production of traditional internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEVs).

The greater emissions are largely attributed to the battery manufacturing process, something the EEA suggests could be amended to incorporate increased use of renewable energies.

However, once an electric vehicle begins its life on the roads the bulk of its emissions have already been produced; whereas with combustion engines, a long period of tailpipe emission production is just beginning.

Battery production concerns

Most car batteries are made in China, South Korea and Japan, where the use of carbon in electricity production is relatively high. 

An EEA report3 found that in China, 35-50% of total EV manufacturing emissions arise from electricity consumption for battery production. These emissions are up to three times higher than in the United States.

In China the proportion of renewable energy in the electricity mix is projected to rise sharply between now and 2025. 

If electricity was generated by wind power alone, China would see a 50% drop in emissions from the production phase compared with the current EU electricity grid mix4

Reducing worldwide carbon intensity by 30% would see a 17% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from battery production by 2030. 

Lithium batteries found in electric cars, tend to be made up of base metals such as copper, aluminium and iron. Other critical raw materials (CRMs) with high economic importance and high-risk supply feature more in electric vehicle production than ICEV production, and require energy-intensive extraction.

Improved energy production techniques and more advanced battery technology will result in less reliance on critical raw materials. This means that electric cars will get greener as the means to produce and power them begin to leave less of an environmental impact.

Is there enough lithium and other rare metals to meet demand for battery production?

It is widely reported that the global supply of lithium ion batteries is struggling to keep up with the increased demand from EV manufacturers.

However this is generally seen as a short-term problem – perhaps reflecting an industry caught off-guard by the rapid increase in demand for EVs and batteries.

Globally, both battery production and the production of lithium and other precious metals is being ramped up rapidly.

In 2018 lithium, cobalt, graphite and nickel prices, all of which are used in EV production, all fell back significantly after price spikes in 2016 and 20175, indicating that the markets are confident in the long term supply of these metals.

How long will the battery last?


A well-maintained, modern electric car should be able to achieve 150,000 miles and beyond before the battery begins to lose capacity, although this figure will reduce if a rapid-charger has been the predominant method of charging.

Find out everything you need to know about electric car charging here.

At some point, owners will be faced with recycling or replacing the battery – likely to then cost far more than the value of the vehicle.

Currently there is no standardised process for recycling batteries, but the benefits make a considerable difference to electric vehicles’ green credentials. 

Reports6 suggest that material recovery can lead to a reduction in energy of 6-56% and a 23% reduction of greenhouse gases, compared with virgin material production. 

Car manufacturers have started to act. Volkswagen introduced a scheme in 2019 which it believes will see 97% of all the raw materials used in new EV batteries reused by 20407

A standardised recycling technique and testing of second-use applications for these batteries has the potential to significantly reduce the environmental impact of their production.

Renewable power is key


With production aside, an electric car is then only as clean as the power it uses to keep moving.  

Until 100% of EVs run on 100% renewable power, the electricity source will remain a thorn in the side of an EV’s environmental merits. 

Crucially though, an electric vehicle has the potential to be 100% green, at least from the perspective of driving and the source of power. And the good news is that energy production is reaching a significant turning point.

In May 2019, the UK clocked up its first coal-free fortnight. 

In the third quarter of 2019 windfarms, solar panels, biomass and hydro plants generated more electricity than the combined output from coal, oil and gas power stations8

And by 2050, solar power is set to have the largest share of electricity generation in the UK.

Will the future be electrified?

The National Grid predicts there will be 36 million electric vehicles on UK roads by 2040 – a figure revealed before the government’s plan to bring the ban on new petrol and diesel sales forward to 2035. 

Everything points to battery-electric cars being the future of mass transportation. For a while, electric was seen to be neck-and-neck with hydrogen in the race to achieve mainstream appeal, but now EV's are clearly winning the race.

While the likes of the Toyota Mirai and Honda Clarity are undoubtedly impressive, they are produced in limited quantities and sold in small numbers. Hydrogen might have a strong future in Japan, but only through large-scale investment from the government.

Other companies to nail their flag to the EV mast include Volvo, which has announced every new car it launches from 2019 will feature an electric motor, and Jaguar, which promises to do the same thing from 2020.

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Electric vehicle charge demand


According to Zap-Map, there are currently over 30,000 charging connectors in the UK across 10,000 locations. Research from Deloitte9 suggests that around 43,000 charging points will be needed by 2030.

The current rate of 200 charging points added in 30 days (as of June 2020) would see demand easily met.

Of course, some degree of home charging will be required if infrastructure is to cope with the increased number of electric cars. In July 2019 a government consultation set out plans that all new UK homes must have charging points included.

EV charging impact on the national grid

Electricity suppliers are working hard to forecast the extra demand that will from a much greater number of EVs and are generally confident that they will meet this extra demand.

The scale of the challenge is highlighted by UK Power Networks which estimated in 2019 that they had 63,000 EVs charging from their networks and that by 2030 the figure will be 4.1 million.10

Part of the answer will come from the provision of additional generating capacity where it is required, but innovative solutions such as smart charging and vehicle to grid or V2G also have a major part to play in ensuring that electricity supply will continue to meet demand.

What is smart charging?

Smart charging involves charging infrastructure and electricity tariffs that allow EV owners (fleet or private) to benefit from lower costs if they charge at times when there is surplus electricity available.

Unlike Economy 7 and similar tariffs which for many years have offered customers cheaper electricity during certain fixed night-time hours, smart charging involves real-time price information, based on supply and demand within the network, and this determines whether or charging begins.

For example, a user that has opted for a smart tariff might return home at 6pm and plug his or her EV in, but it might not start charging until later that evening when demand for electricity has fallen and the electricity supplier has reduced its prices accordingly. 

Smart charging benefits EV operators as they pay less for their electricity but also benefits electricity suppliers because reducing peak electricity demand could reduce the required investment in new generating capacity and network reinforcement. 

What is vehicle-to-grid or V2G?

Vehicle to grid takes the logic of smart charging one step further because at times of high electricity demand, electricity will flow out of EVs’ batteries to help meet the high demand. As with smart charging, V2G tariffs will be optional and will work through price incentives – with electricity ‘

EV whole lifecycle impact

Vehicle ‘lifecycle analyses’ - which take account of all the emissions right the way from the mining of ores, the manufacture of vehicles and batteries, and in-use energy consumption of petrol, diesel or electricity - show large overall CO2 savings for EVs compared to conventional vehicles. 

The British Government’s key 2018 publication The Road to Zero stated that EVs “have substantially lower greenhouse gas emissions than conventional vehicles, even when taking into account the electricity source and the electricity used for battery production. Assuming the current UK energy mix, battery electric vehicles produce the lowest greenhouse gas emissions of all the energy sources and fuels assessed, irrespective of vehicle type and operation.”11

The Road to Zero estimated that in 2018 an EV car in the UK currently has total associated greenhouse gas emissions 66% lower than a petrol car and 60% lower than a diesel car. 

It also estimated that by 2050 emissions from UK electricity generation would fall by 90% because renewables will dominate generation, and that the emissions associated with EV use will fall in parallel. 

So are electric vehicles better for the environment?

The evidence says that they are. Locally, there's little doubt electric cars make our urban areas cleaner and quieter too. 

Once on the road, they’re also responsible for much lower emissions than cars powered by fossil fuels.

The challenge now is to further reduce the emissions produced through EV manufacturing and energy production.

As electric cars become more widespread, cleaner energy generation, better recycling schemes and improvements to battery technology are all needed before we feel the full benefit of their green potential.


The RAC is leading the way when it comes to supporting drivers in the switch to electric vehicles.

An ever-increasing number of our patrol vans have built-in emergency mobile charging systems capable of giving an out-of-charge electric car enough power to be driven a short distance home or to a working chargepoint, while our All-Wheels-Up recovery system allows our patrols to safely rescue electric cars with no need for a flatbed.

Find out more about the RAC’s electric car breakdown cover and EV insurance options today.

Learn more


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