It can be difficult to know which is the most environmentally friendly option. Euronews has asked for advice.
It can be difficult to know which is the most environmentally friendly automotive option. Is it better to keep your current vehicle until you die, buy a new electric car, or convert your car to electric or hybrid?
Low emission zones and a possible ban on combustion engines are forcing car owners in the UK and the European Union to consider greener modes of transport.
Given the passenger cars emit 3.2 metric tons of CO2 per year around the world and with the increase in temperature getting closer and closer to the 1.5ºC limit, there is no doubt that we need to decarbonise the way we travel.
But how to achieve this is still under debate.
How much CO2 is needed to make an electric vehicle?
With 250 million cars on Europe’s roads – most of them powered by fossil fuels – scrapping older vehicles might not be the solution.
“We need to think much more holistically about how these vehicles affect the environment, not just look at one tailpipe and eliminate it,” he says. Nick Molden, Founder and CEO of Emissions Analytics, a company that analyzes the environmental impact of vehicles.
One of the main differences between the CO2 emissions of an electric vehicle and those of a car with a combustion engine resides in the battery.
“In the case of an electric car, it takes between eight and ten tons of manufacturing emissions to produce an 80 kilowatt hour battery,” explains Nick.
This takes into account materials mined and refined in China, where coal remains a major source of energy. As the world turns to renewable energy, this figure will shrink.
However, once on the road, battery electric vehicles produce no emissions, unlike cars with combustion engines.
“An average car in the UK, such as a Nissan Qashqai or Ford Kuga, will emit approximately two to three tonnes of CO2 per year, with the average driver doing around 15,000 kilometers per year,” continues Nick.
According to these figures, you would have to drive your EV for about four years to offset the emissions of a combustion car.
But these carbon-charged batteries don’t last forever: Most only have an eight-year warranty. In general, you have to change them every 10 or 20 years.
Batteries have to last “much, much, much longer than break-even” to significantly reduce CO2 emissions, Nick says. “Actually, they have to last about 14 years, which is the average life expectancy of a normal vehicle,” he adds.
“If they achieve this in practice, they will significantly reduce CO2 emissions during their life cycle.”
What other obstacles do EVs face?
Range anxiety, cost and limited charging infrastructure are just a few of the hurdles that make EVs sober. But there is another underlying problem that is less talked about.
Due to its large batteries, EVs weigh between 400 and 500 kg more than combustion cars. This must be taken into account in its design.
“You have to put much larger, specially designed tires on these vehicles, which normally wear out faster,” explains Nick.
Tire manufacturing is very polluting and release particles as they wear down. A toxic chemical released by tires, 6PPD-quinone, has even been identified as the cause of mass salmon die-offs in rivers in Washington state in the United States.
“Tyres are essentially, and perhaps ironically, made from fossil fuels derived from petroleum. So many of the same pollutants that are in exhaust are also in tires,” Nick explains.
This is a clear example of how complex it can be to determine the global environmental impact of electric vehicles.
Is it worth converting gasoline cars to electric?
Only in the United Kingdom circulate 33 million cars.
“I don’t think anyone is in any doubt now that we are moving towards a decarbonised society, which leads us to ask ourselves: what is going to happen to all those cars?”, he tells us. Matthew Quitterfounder of London Electric Cars.
His company transforms combustion engine vehicles into EVs, a process that, while possible, costs too much for most people to consider.
“It’s expensive,” says Matthew. “Our base conversion costs about £20,000 – €23,000 – and that’s not what I would call affordable.”
This approach reduces manufacturing emissions to some extent, but requires major changes to suspension and tires to ensure a smooth ride with the heavy weight of the battery.
For wealthy drivers eager to keep their classic cars on the road, it’s an attractive option. But the process is long, complex and expensive, so it is unlikely to become widespread.
“I see that it can work for classic cars or niche markets where it’s a hobby,” says Nick.
“But would you upgrade your six year old Nissan QASHQAI to a battery electric vehicle? My advice would be to save yourself a lot of time, hassle and money and buy a new car.”
Are hybrid cars a good solution?
Hybrid cars, which combine gasoline tanks with electric batteries, are controversial.
Greenpeace UK has come to classify plug-in hybrid vehicles as “Wolf with sheep’s skin of the automobile industry”.
Following these statements, official tests confirmed that these vehicles have about much higher emission rates what the manufacturers claim.
In the UK and EU, the sale of new hybrid cars will be banned by 2035. This arguably gives drivers enough time to make the vehicle profitable, especially as they are cheaper than electric vehicles.
In addition, they avoid some of the current problems of electric vehicles. Non-plug-in hybrids have smaller batteries, which means they “don’t weigh much more than a standard vehicle,” says Nick. They do not depend on the charging infrastructure. And despite having a limited electric range, they are still greener than cars with combustion engines.
But for those who can afford it, upgrading directly to an EV is a more environmentally friendly option than plugging the gap with a hybrid.
How to become greener drivers?
Changing our driving habits has as much impact as changing our cars.
In a perfect, carbon-neutral world, we would all ditch the private car and go on foot, by bike, or by train. But this is unlikely to happen, especially in rural areas, where public transport is not widespread.
However, one way to reduce emissions is to choose not to make unnecessary car trips.
“If we could reduce the number of trips by 5-10%, that would already be a significant reduction.”
Governments have a role to play. Incentivizing the use of public transport – with discounted tickets or better services – and taxing drivers more for fuel and pollution could encourage people to think twice before hitting the road.
Watch the video above to learn more about what type of car you should choose.