Are electric cars really greener than petrol cars? We've lined up two SUVs and put them to the test (2024)

Whether you drive an electric car or are considering making the switch, you've probably been drawn into a discussion about whether they are really better for the climate.

Electric cars are key to the world reducing emissions, with transport accounting for almost 20 per cent and rising, so you probably haven't had that debate for the last time.

To save you from your next barbecue encounter, we have turned to the EV Council, which has crunched the numbers for you.

We're comparing an electric car and a traditional petrol one and looking at the life-cycle emissions — that is, all the emissions produced from cradle to grave.

For both types of car, these are the key stages where emissions are produced:

  • manufacturing of the car,
  • production of the battery, especially for electric cars
  • running the cars over their life-cycle, either on petrol or electricity
  • disposal and recycling of the vehicle at the end of its life, including batteries

We'll also compare electric cars in different states because each state uses different amounts of fossil fuels for electricity, which affects how "clean" the car is.

To compare cars, we've chosen an average medium SUV, the sort of car you commonly see on Australian roads.

Some examples of a medium SUV are the electric Tesla Model Y, Toyota's RAV4 and the Mazda CX-5 on the petrol side.

So, buckle up and let's go.

Let's start at when the car is made

Are electric cars really greener than petrol cars? We've lined up two SUVs and put them to the test (1)

Manufacturing covers the production of the raw materials in the car's metal body, interiors, tyres, seating, the whole bundle. At this first stage, all these cars come out with similar emissions profiles.

… adding batteries for EVs

Battery production is the stage where we start to see a split between petrol and electric cars.

Electric vehicles (EV) are powered by batteries, so their batteries are significantly larger and heavier, and use more critical minerals. Our electric SUV also needs a bigger battery than a small hatchback.

It's important to note that this is about life-cycle emissions, so we aren't evaluating other environmental or human rights impacts from battery production for EVs, and we're also not critiquing the oil industry in those areas for petrol cars. That barbecue debate is for another day.

Batteries produced in China have higher emissions than those produced in Europe, and as most Australian electric cars currently have Chinese-made batteries, that's what's used here.

Climate experts and even the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change expect these figures to drop as more renewable energy is used in the coming years to make the batteries.

"So the energy needed to produce batteries is decarbonised, and therefore has lower emissions," according to University of Technology Sydney transport researcher, Robin Smit.

So at this point, before the cars hit the road, electric cars have more embedded emissions.

But that all changes when you start driving …

Taking our cars on the road

Are electric cars really greener than petrol cars? We've lined up two SUVs and put them to the test (2)

It won't shock you to find out that most of a car's lifetime emissions come from powering it to drive.

"The fuel energy cycle is normally the most important part of the life-cycle assessment [and] that includes on-road driving, the maintenance, and of course, the production of the energy," Professor Smit said.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) estimates the average Australian car drives about 12,600 kilometres a year, or 189,000 over its lifetime, so that is what's used in this modelling.

Petrol cars are dirty. That's a fact. Combustion cars are powered by burning petrol, which releases emissions into the atmosphere and is — pardon the pun — a major climate change driver. These are referred to as "tailpipe emissions".

The petrol SUV here is up against an electric SUV charged on the national grid, which has a mix of fossil fuels and renewables.

Our petrol SUV produces almost 46 tonnes of carbon over its lifetime on the road.

These figures also factor in the emissions coming from refining and transporting the fuel.

"When you look at fossil fuels, they need to be extracted, processed, and then transported to service stations, for example, to make them available. So there's a greenhouse gas emission costs associated with that," Professor Smit said.

The estimated petrol used here is 8.3 litres for 100km and comes from the Worldwide Harmonised Light Vehicle Test Procedure (WLTP). These figures are almost always lower than real-world petrol use.

So, a lot of energy is burnt to move petrol cars, but most of it is wasted.

"They are not efficient, about 70 to 80 per cent of the energy is wasted in heat. So you only use 20 to 30 per cent of the energy into fuels for actually driving around," Professor Smit said.

What's more, Australians typically drive heavier cars than other countries, especially in Europe. Heavier cars require more fuel to move them, resulting in higher emissions.

This all means that petrol cars start producing significantly more emissions during their use, leaving electric cars in the dust.

Let's look at a different view of our two cars as we drive them for 15 years or 189,000km. Petrol cars are displayed in the blue line, and electric cars in red.

Electric cars are powered by electricity (obviously!) but how that electricity is created makes a huge difference to the overall emissions profile of EVs.

Strap in.

You can see emissions for the petrol carrise while the electric car's life-cycle emissions curve is flattening. That's because the composition of our electricity grid is rapidly changing and more renewables are coming online.

To account for that, this modelling from the EV Council uses the scenario mapped out by the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) which predicts the rate of new renewables coming into the grid and fossil fuel plants being decommissioned. That is, by 2030, the same electric car will be producing lower emissions because it will be charged with more renewable power.

So this is for Australia as a whole, but where you live can also have a big impact on how much cleaner an EV is.

Some Australian states already have mostly renewable energy powering their grids, while others still have lots of fossil fuels.

Are electric cars really greener than petrol cars? We've lined up two SUVs and put them to the test (3)

A car that's charged off a grid with lots of fossil fuels produces much higher emissions than a car charged somewhere with mostly renewable energy.

Let's look at our electric SUV in Western Australia, where in 2022 more than 83 per cent of electricity came from fossil fuels, mostly gas.

Now this is what our SUV's emissions look like in Tasmania (shown in the green line), which powers almost its entire electricity network on hydro.

It's the same in South Australia, which has lots of wind and solar energy in the grid. You can see here that no matter where the EV is, it saves tonnes of emissions overall compared to a petrol SUV.

This highlights the huge opportunity to reduce transport emissions with electric cars.

The cleaner the grid, the cleaner the electric car.

What about cars charged on rooftop solar?

Are electric cars really greener than petrol cars? We've lined up two SUVs and put them to the test (4)

More than 3 million Australian homes have rooftop solar and, according to a 2021 survey, most EV owners plug into their own set-up.

A car that's charged with rooftop solar produces even lower emissions over its lifetime.

"When you use solar panels, they basically have very small-to-negligible emissions," Professor Smit noted.

Less than a tonne of carbon over all those kilometres!

Now, it's time to say goodbye to our cars and send them to the car afterlife …

Getting rid of our cars

Are electric cars really greener than petrol cars? We've lined up two SUVs and put them to the test (5)

According to Professor Smit, the greenhouse gas emissions from taking cars off the road are small compared to the overall driving life of a car.

What's more, most of the materials in a car can be recycled, so this offsets some of the emissions from the production of the car at the start of the cycle.

To complete our emission profile, let's add the emissions for the disposal of our cars.

There's a lot of potential for improvements here too.

It takes a lot of grunt to power a car, and when a battery can no longer do that and comes out of an electric car, it still holds a lot of value and charging potential.

It can be used as a backup household battery, for example. Some car companies like Tesla are already using old car batteries to power their factories.

It's estimated this second life for EV batteries could cut the carbon footprint of battery production by half.

At the finish line

Are electric cars really greener than petrol cars? We've lined up two SUVs and put them to the test (6)

Overall, every electric car will produce fewer emissions than its petrol equivalent, no matter where they are charged.

Even with an electricity grid that still uses some fossil fuels, electric cars have much lower overall carbon emissions, and that will continue to drop as the electricity gets greener.

And remember, this example uses SUVs, so lighter electric cars like hatchbacks have even lower emissions.

Hang on, what about hybrids?

Put simply, hybrids are complicated.

Plug-in hybrids can be run off either petrol or from a battery that's plugged in and charged. Therefore, the life-cycle emissions from a plug-in hybrid depend on the region where it gets charged but also on how diligent the driver is with charging. Remember, it can also run on petrol.

The European Union's Environment Agency recently found that emissions from plug-in hybrids were 3.5 times higher than reported.

It concluded that hybrids "are charged and driven in electric mode much less than how they were expected to be used".

Where we get our figures from

These figures come from the Electric Vehicle Council, which based its life-cycle emissions calculator on modelling from the European organisation Transport & Environment.

We got Professor Smit to look over the EV Council's modelling and he said while it was generous to petrol cars, it provided a good way to compare life-cycle emissions.

The inputs for petrol use are based on the WLTP. As mentioned in the story, this is likely to underestimate real-world petrol usage.

The modelling uses data for a Nickel-Mangenese-Cobalt NMC li-ion battery produced in China, as that's the most common type of battery in the Australian EV market.

It calculates 105kg CO2/KWhfor the carbon produced from battery production.

This same study found that "producing batteries with photovoltaic electricity instead of Chinese coal-based electricity decreases climate impacts of battery production by 69 per cent". Considering this estimate would reduce the emissions calculation in the point we make about battery production.

For a medium electric SUV, the energy used is 17.3 KWh/100km and a battery size of 70.2 KWh average for cars available in that category.

The emissions factors for energy sources are based on data from the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Changehere.

To model the rate of renewables coming into the grid, the EV Council used the step-change scenario from the AEMO.

Statements about the composition of the electricity grids in different states come from 2022 numbers from the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water.

The estimate of recycling emissions comes from a study by Transport & Environment.

Posted, updated

Are electric cars really greener than petrol cars? We've lined up two SUVs and put them to the test (2024)

FAQs

Are electric cars really greener than petrol cars? We've lined up two SUVs and put them to the test? ›

Overall, every electric car will produce fewer emissions than its petrol equivalent, no matter where they are charged. Even with an electricity grid that still uses some fossil fuels, electric cars have much lower overall carbon emissions, and that will continue to drop as the electricity gets greener.

Are electric cars really greener? ›

Myth #1. Electric vehicles are worse for the climate than gasoline cars because of power plant emissions. FACT: Electric vehicles typically have a smaller carbon footprint than gasoline cars, even when accounting for the electricity used for charging. Electric vehicles (EVs) have no tailpipe emissions.

What is worse for the environment gas or electric vehicles? ›

Electric vehicles release more toxic particles into the atmosphere and are worse for the environment than their gas-powered counterparts, according to a resurfaced study.

Are electric cars better for the environment than petrol cars? ›

Research shows that even if an EV is charged by our current electricity grid they produce lower lifecycle emissions than similar petrol or hybrid vehicles. Even more important, however, is that as the electricity grid becomes cleaner, EVs become cleaner too.

What are the disadvantages of electric cars on the environment? ›

While much better for the environment than conventional vehicles, EVs contain parts that involve some unsustainable practices. The components of an EV's lithium-ion batteries have to be mined, and electric car batteries aren't easily recycled, which adds to a growing worldwide e-waste problem.

What is the biggest problem with electric cars? ›

One key disadvantage of electric cars is the battery life. Like all batteries, the capacity decreases over time. Researchers suggest battery capacity decreases by approximately 2.3% every year. Battery longevity is highly dependent on temperature.

Why are electric car batteries bad for the environment? ›

While oil is exclusively mined underground in specific areas, the components for lithium-ion batteries are obtained through open pit mining that damages wide areas of the natural environment.

Which vehicle is worse for the environment? ›

A recently resurfaced electric vehicle study has revealed that EVs could be worse for the environment than regular gas-powered cars, contradicting arguments made by climate experts in the Biden administration.

Are electric cars bad for your health? ›

Conclusions: The results of the current literature on electric vehicles and health suggest an overall positive health impact of transitioning to electric vehicles. Additional observational studies would help expand our understanding of the real-world health effects of electric vehicles.

Why are electric cars not the future? ›

While bigger batteries allow drivers to travel farther between charges, they also make the cars heavier, more dangerous, more expensive, and worse for the planet. The "range anxiety" that has resulted in massive batteries is another reason EVs don't work as a replacement for gas cars.

How long do electric cars last? ›

Plan on a service life of between eight and 12 years if your EV is regularly used in more extreme conditions. As of 2023, the average age of all passenger vehicles in the U.S. is currently 12 and a half years old. Your EV's battery health might never even come under consideration.

Do electric cars need oil changes? ›

Electric cars use completely different drivetrains, so you will never have to worry about routine oil changes that are necessary for traditional cars. Though your electric car does not need oil, it requires a routine check on these 3 fluids in EVs; coolant, brake fluid, and windshield washing fluid.

Are EVs really cleaner? ›

EVs generate most CO2 emissions in the beginning

27-71% lower than those of equivalent ICE vehicles. A driver in the US would reach the breakeven point at 41,000 km – or in around two years of driving, assuming an average annual distance traveled of around 19,000 km.

Why shouldn't all cars be electric? ›

Electric vehicles are not “zero” emissions—they create more emissions than internal combustion engine vehicles when they are produced, and they also cause emissions when they are charged, usually by burning fossil fuels.

Why are electric cars not sustainable? ›

The production of EVs, especially their batteries, raises environmental concerns. Lithium, a key component, is mined using processes that require vast amounts of water and emit carbon dioxide. This harms local communities and contributes to deforestation and biodiversity loss.

How much does it cost to replace a battery in an electric car? ›

How much does an EV battery cost to replace? EV battery replacements range from $6,500 to $20,000 based on the pack, size and manufacturer. If a battery is within its manufacturer warranty, typically 8 years and 100,000 miles, then you should get a replacement battery at no extra cost.

Are electric cars polluting the earth? ›

All-electric vehicles and PHEVs running only on electricity have zero tailpipe emissions, but electricity production, such as power plants, may generate emissions.

How long does it take for an electric car to become carbon neutral? ›

It takes a typical EV about one year in operation to achieve "carbon parity" with an ICE vehicle. If the EV draws electricity from a coal/fired grid, however, the catchup period stretches to more than five years. If the grid is powered by carbon/free hydroelectricity, the catchup period is about six months.

Are electric vehicles greenwashing? ›

Although these vehicles don't release CO2 when they run, they do release CO2 when they are made and when the energy in their batteries is generated. For example, mining activities that extract rare earth metals for battery production can use a lot of electricity, which pollutes the environment.

Is Tesla really environmentally friendly? ›

Additionally, by its own report, Tesla has a lower water consumption for manufacturing per car, which helps increase sustainability a bit. Lastly, all of the manufacturing for Teslas is done in the U.S. and in accordance with standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which helps cut down on emissions.

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