We talk about how electric cars help limit climate change. Well, it makes sense since electric vehicles, or EVs, don’t directly emit greenhouse gases, unlike diesel and petrol models. With this in mind, it’s plausible to say that EVs won’t contribute negatively to the environment, right? Well, not entirely.

EVs may still introduce a considerable degree of harm to our climate, depending on where you drive. More specifically, it depends on which method your country uses to harvest the electrical energy needed to power your EV.

Two types of vehicle emissions

Before we dive deeper into the connection between electric cars and climate changes, let’s talk about vehicle emissions. Vehicles emissions come in two forms: direct and life cycle.

Direct emissions

Direct emissions are emissions that are directly produced from the car during day-to-day use. On conventional vehicles, direct emissions are emitted from the fuel processing system to the tailpipe. The emissions consist of pollutants, including nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide, and other types of greenhouse gases.

On the other hand, EVs emit zero direct emissions, which is the main reason they are considered eco-friendly.  Even hybrid electric vehicles, HEVs, emit direct emissions, albeit much smaller than to petrol and diesel cars.

Life cycle emissions

Life cycle emissions are the emissions that are not directly produced by the car. These emissions are emitted during car manufacturing, distribution, and recycling/disposal. For example, EVs indirectly emit harmful gases when the vehicles and the batteries are in the production phase.

Life cycle emissions also come from the production of things related to cars, such as fuel. The fuel used by EVs—in this case, electricity—may or may not emit emissions depending on how the electrical energy is made and processed.

EVs may be the perfect tool for climate change

According to Carbon Brief, a UK-based website created to improve the understanding of climate change, countries with coal-intensive electricity generation would have a much smaller benefit from EVs. EVs could potentially have the same lifetime greenhouse emissions as the most efficient conventional HEV. So unless your country moves from using coal or natural gas to renewable sources like solar or wind power to produce electricity, you won’t contribute to the environment as much as you probably thought you were.

The countries of India, Estonia, and the Czech Republic are still using high-polluting coal-fired power plants. That said, it doesn’t mean that the Indian or Czechs need to completely shy away from EVs. As you might’ve guessed, electric cars are still better overall for the climate, no matter where you live.

Carbon Brief also suggests that, in the UK, even if we don’t take into account the lessening of carbon intensity due to better electricity generating methods, EVs can have as much as three times fewer emissions compared to the average conventional car. We can also expect that, slowly but surely, countries worldwide will––or continue to––decarbonize electricity generation. This effort will surely decrease the driving emissions for existing EVs and manufacturing emissions for new EVs.

EVs can save billions of dollars in damages

A study conducted by Daniel Peters from Northwestern University found that, in the U.S. alone, around 17 billion U.S. Dollars could’ve been saved from transitioning to electric drivetrains. This is true even if only one of four cars driving around on the street are electric. The cost-saving potential comes from social and health-related problems arising from carbon emissions and air pollution.

If we pump up the figure and raise the electric cars from one-fourth to three for every four cars, we can further save costs for as much as 70 billion U.S. dollars. Not just multiplied, but the number of money saved almost increases exponentially.

Peters and his team calculate these damages using the article “Country-level social cost of carbon,” published in 2018 for the social aspect. From this article, we can learn about the social cost of carbon (SCC), a metric used to count the expected economic damages from CO2 emissions. According to the article, the global median value of SCC remains high, reaching around $417 per tonne of CO2 (tCO2).

The health aspect is based on the ICCT’s report on air pollution impacts on health for 2010 and 2015. ICCT’s study states that a vehicle’s tailpipe emissions contribute to ~361,000 premature deaths in 2010 and ~385,000 in 2015. This finding aligns with Peters’ believes that car electrification could prevent hundreds to thousands of premature deaths per year. Transportation pollution is one of the leading causes of deadly diseases such as chronic asthma and bronchitis, as well as heart or lung infection.

Conclusion

No matter where you drive, electric cars can help mitigate climate change. The positive effect is doubled if you live in a country where electricity is extracted from renewable sources. EVs can potentially save damages worth billions of dollars, both socially and physically. If you are interested in EVs and their ability to protect the environment, you are on the right track. No pun intended!