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Are electric vehicles really environmentally friendly?

Electric cars are often presented as 'non-polluting' or 'zero emission' vehicles. But they are not necessarily less polluting than conventional vehicles!

To assess their ecological performance, it is important to take into account several elements...

How the energy used is generated

Even if driving a fully electric vehicle does not cause any air pollution, the way the electricity it uses is generated should not be forgotten.

Worldwide: 60 % of the electricity is generated by fossil fuels

An average of 60 % of the electricity produced in the world comes from coal and gas, i.e. fossil fuels. This means that an electric car produces nearly as much CO2 per kilometer as a petrol or diesel vehicle.

Belgium:  3 to 4 times less CO2 /km than classical cars

In Europe however, the situation is considerably better. In Belgium, for instance, the electricity is mainly generated using zero emission energy sources, although these may also give rise to questions:

  • nuclear power plants
  • renewable energy (wind power, solar energy, hydropower)

This means that an e-car in Belgium produces 3 to 4 times less CO2 per kilometer than a classical car. And what’s more, according to a study conducted by the VUB, an electric vehicle produces even 15 times less CO2 when it runs exclusively on green power.

Environmental impact of car manufacture

Energy consumption

An e-car will be responsible throughout its life for CO2 emission: from manufacture, supply and use, to recycling of the parts. Manufacturing batteries involves the use of a great deal of energy and often creates a lot of pollution. 

Use of rare metals

Furthermore, these car batteries need very specific materials which are often rare. Extracting lithium or cobalt in particular often weighs heavily in environmental and in human terms. Not to mention the huge problem of recycling…

Are electric cars as polluting as fossil-fuel cars?

There is some ambiguity regarding this issue as even experts fail to agree. In order to draw up their calculations, scientists not only rely on known data, but also on hypothesis as well as possible scenarios. Depending on the assumption, electric cars are either a lot less, equally or sometimes even a lot more polluting than engine powered traditional cars.

But one thing is sure: the negative health impact of fossil-fuel cars

  • Diesel and petrol cars also emit other harmful air pollutants such as nitrogen oxides (NOx), which are considered to be carcinogenic.
  • Although diesel cars release 20% less CO2 than petrol cars, yet they produce more fine particles dangerous to health. These particles, invisible to the eye, may find their way into the lungs. Particulate matter emission is held responsible for no less than 12,000 premature deaths a year in Belgium!

E-cars can be an interesting alternative, but...

The electric vehicle is an interesting path to follow, provided that other aspects of our production systems are adapted, whether with regard to energy, industrial processes or technology.

On the other hand, do we really always have to take the car?

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