Electric vehicles: a smart choice for the environment

Change language
Article Published 17 Dec 2018 Last modified 22 Dec 2022
5 min read
Are electric vehicles better for our climate and air quality than petrol or diesel cars? We sat down with Andreas Unterstaller, the European Environment Agency’s (EEA) transport and environment expert to discuss the pros and cons of electric cars which is the focus of a new EEA report.

Can you tell us about the key findings from the EEA's recent report?

The EEA has recently published a new Transport and Environment Reporting Mechanism (TERM) report. The basic conclusion is that when it comes to climate change and air quality, electric cars are clearly preferable to petrol or diesel cars. Contrary to some public doubts and uncertainties about the environmental benefits of electric cars, the science is increasingly clear. Even with the current electricity mix in Europe, which still includes a lot of electricity from coal, there are clear benefits. These benefits will further increase going forward, as Europe uses more renewable energy in the future.

This is also one of the first reports that brings a circular economy perspective to the electric car discussion, giving a lot attention to reuse, remanufacturing and recycling. There have been many scientific studies on the life-cycle impacts of electric cars. At the EEA, we have brought together this knowledge and made it accessible to a wider audience. We need to get better at reusing and recycling electric cars and their components to minimise the impact of their production on the environment. The end of life phase is particularly important for electric cars. They contain a lot of metals and other critical raw materials that can consume large amounts of energy to process and involve sometimes toxic substances in their production. So if we can recover these from existing cars and reuse them it’s a big benefit. If we can take a whole component like a battery and use it in a different application, this can really reduce the overall environmental impact significantly.

What can be done to make electric cars more sustainable and to realise their full environmental and health benefits?

We highlight some important lessons in the report. First, we have to make sure that the electricity supply used for making and running electric cars comes from renewable sources. Our report shows that this is really the biggest single influence factor on their environmental and health performance. Secondly, we have to make these cars last. Squeezing the mileage out of every electric car that is being produced is vital. So if they are just driven for 70 000 kilometres (km) and then scrapped, their overall environmental performance does not look so good compared to conventional cars because of the extra energy used for their production – more than that of a conventional car. But once you drive them for 150 000 km or more, the comparison strongly favours electric cars. Finally, when an electric car needs to be scrapped, we need to make the most of its materials.

How does a typical electric car compare to a petrol or diesel vehicle? Are they 100 % clean when it comes to greenhouse emissions?

It is very important to say that no car will ever be 100 % clean. The arrival of the electric car does not change that. What we are saying is that if you really need to use a car, an electric car is the better choice for the environment. However, using public transport or simply walking or cycling to work will always be much better for the environment. A car is still a car; replacing one with another type is not going to solve transport problems like congestion.

Electric motors are simply more efficient than combustion engines, so more of the energy put in the battery ends up being used to drive the car. Especially when driving in cities, electric vehicles waste less energy. Also, there are simply no tailpipe emissions of air pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and particles. We still get particles from braking and from tyre wear, but overall there is less than from a petrol or diesel car. Electric vehicles can also bring down noise, especially at lower speeds they are less noisy than conventional cars.

Health-wise, the main benefit is related to air quality. You will still have some air pollution from the electricity that goes into electric cars but this typically comes from power stations which might have better pollution controls than you could implement in a conventional car and are usually located further away from densely populated areas.

What countries are in the lead when it comes to promoting and using electric vehicles?

Many European countries are actually quite active in promoting their use, especially Norway, which has implemented ambitious policies to reach a higher share of electric cars and also a good charging infrastructure. The Netherlands, and also the United Kingdom and France have done quite a lot. Taken together, the European Union is one of the big players globally, together with the United States and China. All are investing heavily in electric mobility.

What about consumer concerns over issues such as charging points and electricity bills?

There are many consumer concerns over whether there are enough charging points along highways or parking lots as well as the strain on our power grids and electricity costs. Currently we have very few electric cars on the road. Some cities have more than others, but on the whole, around 1.5 % of the new car fleet in Europe sold last year were electric cars (battery electric and plug-in hybrids). So the infrastructure needs to grow as more and more electric cars appear on our roads. In some of the bigger cities, the infrastructure is already good and the number of publicly accessible charging stations has been growing rapidly in recent years.

Yes, your electricity bill will go up, but running an electric car will cost you less than running a normal car powered by petrol or diesel. This helps offset the high purchase price of electric cars over time.

The 2016 EEA briefing 'Electric vehicles and the energy sector — impacts on Europe's future emissions' looked into the impacts on our electricity grids. If 80 % of all cars were electric in 2050, the EU's electricity consumption would probably go up by about 10 %. The bulk of electricity demand would still come from industry and private households. Similar to charging infrastructure, the electricity grid will also need to evolve as more electric cars hit the road. This is a challenge but the EU is already doing the same for the integration of renewable energy sources in the grid.

What is the EU and European Commission doing to promote their use?

The EU as a whole has been channeling billions of euros into relevant research over the last decade and is pushing for a rapid expansion of the charging infrastructure. It is also investing heavily and promoting alternative fuel infrastructure, which includes electric vehicle chargers, especially on the main European transit corridors.

The EU is also pushing for developing battery production in Europe, because electric car batteries are currently mainly produced in Japan, China and South Korea. Finally, the EU is making common rules and standards for electric vehicles and the charging infrastructure so you can move about freely in Europe.


Andreas Unterstaller

Andreas Unterstaller

This interview was published in the December 2018 issue of the EEA Newsletter 04/2018


Geographic coverage

Temporal coverage