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Can electric cars help the planet?

The effects of climate change are being felt around the world. Sea levels are rising, air quality is getting poorer, and we’re experiencing extreme weather.

Despite carbon dioxide emissions in the UK dropping to a low of 400 million tonnes in 2020, more needs to be done to protect the planet, and research has shown electric vehicles (EVs) could help.

The push for a greener future

Back in 2020, the government confirmed that the sale of new petrol and diesel cars would end by 2030. Since then, £2.5 billion has been pledged towards plug-in vehicle grants, a drive to install 10 times more on-street chargers, and other schemes designed to encourage drivers to ‘go electric’.

The ideas are part of a wider plan to make the UK a ‘net zero’ nation by 2050. In other words, the aim is to end our contribution to climate change by offsetting our carbon emissions. 

More EVs were bought in the UK in 2021 than in the previous 5 years combined, but with more electric cars on our roads than ever before, can they really help the planet?

Are electric cars better for the environment?

Besides the current lower running costs, EVs offer many benefits over diesel and petrol cars. These include exemption from clean air zone charges and lower maintenance costs.

Just 1 electric car can save an average of 1.5 tonnes of CO2 in a year, compared to using an equivalent conventional car in the same way1.  That’s an encouraging sign, as transport accounted for 24% of the UK’s total emissions in 2020. Zero tailpipe emissions mean EVs don’t emit any exhaust gases, reducing air pollution and helping governments to achieve climate change targets.

As the UK works towards a net zero goal by 2050, EVs have a big part to play, but the negative impact of the production process also needs to be considered.

The impact of EVs on the environment

EV batteries are made from a variety of raw materials, including aluminium, copper and iron, and more precious metals such as lithium and graphite.

These materials have to be extracted or mined from the earth, which, as well as being expensive, isn’t environmentally friendly. For example, mining for lithium requires large amounts of water, a process which ends up drying out the land. And most EV batteries are made in China, South Korea and Japan, where the amount of carbon created in electricity production is high. 

EVs also need electricity to charge their batteries, and that’s often sourced from non-renewable materials. However, the UK is on track to increase cleaner energy production. 2020 was the first year that electricity predominantly produced from renewable sources, when 43% of our power came from a mix of wind, solar, and hydroelectric energy.  

Manufacturing an EV produces more carbon than manufacturing an equivalent petrol or diesel car. This is partly due to immature infrastructure, but with greater investment it’s expected that emissions will reduce over time. The International Council on Clean Transportation found the emissions produced during the manufacturing process are paid off after just 2 years of driving an EV compared to a traditional car.  

As more EVs reach the end of their lifecycle, we’ll also see an increase in the repurposing of batteries to minimise their impact on the environment.

A step in the right direction

While electric cars harm the environment during the mining and production process, they’re less harmful than petrol or diesel cars over their lifecycle. By charging EVs using electricity from more renewable sources, the vehicles can become even kinder to the planet.

The facts show that while EVs aren’t the perfect solution, they are a significant step in the right direction while car use is necessary.