The EV emissions debate hit the headlines again, but what’s the real story?

You may have seen or heard the news at the end of last year reporting that a typical EV would need to be driven almost 50,000 miles before it was ‘greener’ than petrol or diesel. But this was fake news. The real story is that EVs are far greener, far sooner.

2021 is already beginning to feel like 2020 all over again. Almost a year ago, we ran a story detailing how across 95 per cent of the globe, EVs are cleaner to run across their lifespan than a petrol or diesel car. You can read it here.

Fast forward to this year and the embers of that debate have flared up once again thanks to a report which had ‘input’ from McLaren, Aston Martin, Bosch and Honda. It claimed that an EV would need to be driven 50,000 miles before it paid off its carbon debt from manufacture. And the report hit the headlines on most of the major automotive and news outlets.

However, it was conspicuously absent from Discover EV for one simple reason: it simply wasn’t true. Links with lobbies, PR firms and manufacturers aside, we simply thought the figures didn’t add up.

It subsequently came to pass that the report was unreputable. And when the reality of the situation became clear, Aston Martin trended on social media for some time, and not for good reasons. Make of that what you will.

So, what is the real story?

EV cleanliness continues to be a subject which the industry is getting its head around. Polestar has been extremely proactive on detailing the carbon impact of its Polestar 2 EV, with production creating a whopping 10 tonnes more CO2 than an equivalent XC40. Most of this additional pollution is thanks to battery production. Volkswagen estimates around 40 per cent of its EV carbon debt is down to the battery.

Polestar reckons that in a scenario where the ‘2 is charged using renewable energy, it will take 30,000 miles to overtake a petrol-powered XC40 in the cleanliness stakes. This would obviously increase depending on the local grid. However, over a 125,000 mile lifespan, the EV comes out on top regardless.

Other studies – including one cited in Autocar by EV analyst and Eindhoven University researcher, Auke Hoekstra – found that depending on manufacturing processes and the type of energy a local grid uses, the real figure could be more like 16,000 miles. He tweeted his findings.

Taking Polestar’s ‘worst case’ scenario of 48,000 miles to carbon neutrality, and Hoekstra’s ‘best case’ scenario, an average of 32,000 miles before an EV pays back its carbon debt is a sensible estimation. We would caveat this with stating that if you’re savvy with where you buy energy, or if you generate it yourself with solar panels, you stand to become carbon negative far more quickly.

Whole-of-life calculations

In our view, EVs are far better thought of in terms of their whole of life carbon impact. Through this lens they will always beat petrol or diesel – except in extremely unlikely circumstances such as a crash, fire or other total loss.

Polestar calculated that in its ‘best case’ scenario for the 2, it would emit just 0.4 tonnes of CO2 over the course of 125,000 miles. In a wider context, according to a piece of peer-reviewed, academic research by the universities of Exeter, Nijmegen and Cambridge, over an average EV’s lifespan, the global average is 31 per cent less CO2 than a conventional car. And this figure was based on 2015’s mix of power generation which had significantly less renewable energy in its mix than 2020s.

If there is one thing we agree with, which was highlighted in the controversial report mentioned above, it is that EV makers need to be rigorous and transparent in how they assess the environmental impact of their vehicles. Customers can then make truly informed decisions on how best to contribute to a greener future.

In the meantime, be wary of what you read, and where the news originates!


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