Are electric cars better for the environment?

It is often thought that electric cars are the best environmental choice compared to standard fossil fuel cars. They are quiet and clean, right? If tail-pipe emissions would be the only criteria to assess a car’s environmental performance, this would be correct. But a deeper look into other components and maintenance of the car using LCA serves to test whether the assumption above is right or not.

In Australia today, most electric cars are largely fuelled by black and brown coal combustion, the main sources of electricity on the populous Eastern Seaboard. This contributes to a high carbon emissions amount and dramatically reduces the advantages from electric vehicles.

Studies have shown that the biggest downside for electric cars (and hybrids) in the embedded CO2 is the battery pack production, increasing the pre-use embedded carbon by around 40-50% compared to a fossil fuel car.

An electric car will only be carbon-efficient if it compensates for this additional impact throughout its usage stage. This is possible only if the source of electricity is renewable in a significant amount, which is not the typical situation in Australia where 85% of all electricity is generated from coal.

Another aspect is the longevity of battery packs, as the longer these go without replacing, the better the life cycle impact result. Short-lived batteries could even undo the environmental gains from using renewable sourced electricity.

Before plugging into the grid, owners and prospective electric car converts need to know the detailed consumption of their cars, battery longevity and carbon intensity of the electricity source intended to recharge their car.

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