Electric car life cycle assessment: will everything be okay now??

How environmentally friendly are electric cars?? This question is the subject of the most frequent disputes – even between experts. However, important aspects are often neglected.

Parking at an e-charging station

Since high government subsidies have been granted in Germany, the sales figures for passenger cars with battery-electric drives have increased significantly. But electric cars still account for just 1.2 percent of the total fleet of around 48 million registered vehicles.

One important reason for this, in addition to high prices and a spotty charging infrastructure, is considerable doubt about the often-vaunted environmental friendliness of electric cars. “For me, the alleged CO2 balance is one big hoax. You definitely can’t save the environment/climate with the e-car, especially not with the German electricity mix”, so a reader opinion this week in the on-line portal of a large daily paper.

Battery production and electricity mix are disputed

“Criticism of the electric car usually ignites around two points: One is the energy-intensive production of the battery and the other is the still quite high proportions of fossil power generation today.”, Hinrich Helms, an expert on alternative drive systems from the Heidelberg Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (ifeu), tells DW.

In addition to his own modeling on the environmental balance of electric cars, the expert also evaluates studies on the subject by other institutions.

In large parts of the research landscape, a consensus is emerging on the climate assessment of the electric car. Taking into account the most important factors that play a role in production and operation, a current electric vehicle has a climate advantage over cars with diesel or gasoline engines even when charged with average German electricity mix over the entire life cycle up to battery recycling.

Hinrich Helms | Expert for alternative drives at Ifeu Heudelberg

Hinrich Helms, expert for alternative drives at ifeu Heidelberg

The electric car’s lead is growing steadily

The advantage has also tended to grow in recent years, according to Helms, and is now between 20 and 30 percent. Ten years ago, similar studies had put the electric vehicle on a par with efficient diesels. But in 2021, the share of green electricity in Germany was already 47.7 percent on average by June, while in 2010 it was only 16.4 percent. Accordingly, the lead of electric cars in the balance grew a bit year by year, despite simultaneous increases in efficiency of internal combustion engines.

Even among researchers, there is always a dispute about the CO2 balance of electric cars, as was the case earlier this week. A fierce exchange of blows was offered.

Combustion engine experts claimed in an open letter to the EU that CO2 emissions from the charging process of e-cars could be caused by a newly discovered “calculation error” underestimated by at least a factor of two.

You demanded that vehicles with internal combustion engines should continue to be used in the future to protect the climate, but that they should then be powered by biofuels or artificially generated fuels.

Other scientists, who probably do not belong to the combustion faction, reacted promptly.

Accusations among scientists

Among other things, the letter was described as “highly embarrassing” branded and be” a scientifically dressed up lobbyist letter”, which is frantically trying to save the “piston engines” to save.

The “miscalculation is a deliberate assumption and has been an established methodological standard for years.

It is remarkable that this heated debate among fellow researchers is taking place at a time when large parts of the powerful automotive industry – above all Volkswagen, the industry leader – have long since set the course for electromobility.

“Relatively the best solution is the electric car”

Hinrich Helms also believes that the electric car is relatively the best solution to the climate problem, if it absolutely has to be a car. “Overall, of course, it would be better to avoid the car as much as possible and use the bicycle or public transport.”

Cobalt mines in the Congo

Cobalt mines in the Congo

But at least we are on the right track with the generation of renewable electricity and the electric vehicle uses it in a particularly energy-efficient way. Further challenges, however, lie in the production of the vehicle.

“Sooner or later, renewable energies will also have to be used in the mining, transport and processing of raw materials, as well as in the further production process, in order to achieve zero-emission mobility over the entire life cycle as well. Of course, reconciling this complex value chain is a major challenge.”, Helms says, referring to the discussion on the Supply Chain Act, which would also make Western producers accountable for their suppliers’ respect for human rights and environmental protection.

The editorial team recommends

Electric car: Using math tricks to become environmentally friendly?

The question of the best life cycle assessment of different types of car drive systems is naturally in favor of the electric car – or is it?? Experts warn against sweeping judgments.

Recycling of batteries and accumulators

The flood of batteries is growing, and not just from e-cars and e-bikes. Only about half is recycled. In order to meet new legal requirements, a lot has to be invested in the reconditioning of old batteries.

With the burners the jobs die

Electric drives are less complicated than diesel or gasoline engines. What sounds like good news, however, has a downside: with internal combustion engines, jobs are also being eliminated. The question is: How many??

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