Are e-cars climate friendly?

PROJECT CLIMATE’s view on the current debate

In recent weeks there have been numerous press reports on the climate friendliness of electric cars – with very different results. A press release from VW stated “electric vehicles with lowest CO2 emissions”, then the ifo Institute published a study which came to the conclusion that diesel cars are better than electric cars from a climate point of view.

An overview of the current discussion can be found, for example, in this article in Der Spiegel.

So what is the truth? The different studies show one thing very well: Depending on the underlying assumptions, you can get any desired result. So there is not one truth. It’s more about getting a realistic assessment. And you get that by checking how realistic the underlying assumptions are. The most important parameters are the following:

  • Mileage of the vehicles (the longer the better the performance of the electric car)
  • Comparability of vehicles (if you compare a Tesla with over 300 hp with a diesel compact car, you get distorted results)
  • Electricity mix (Germany, EU, green electricity)
  • Type of energy used for car and battery production
  • Size of the battery in an electric car (the bigger the worse the carbon footprint

If you take a closer look, for example, at the study from ifo Institute mentioned above, you come to the conclusion that all assumptions were made to the disadvantage of the e-car. So it’s no surprise that the diesel performs well here.

A more realistic picture, for example, is provided by a recent study by Agora Verkehrswende on the carbon footprint of e-cars. Here realistic assumptions are made and the study comes to the conclusion that from a climate point of view “electric vehicles today already have an advantage over combustion engines”.

If one also takes a look at the greenhouse gas mitigation potential of the various technologies, the advantage of the e-car becomes clear. The share of green electricity is growing every year. Thus, both battery production and driving are becoming more climate-friendly every year. In addition, there are technological advances in battery production, which further reduce the size of the ecological footprint. In the future, electric cars can be produced and operated with very low climate effects.

This potential is largely exhausted in the case of the combustion engine. The argument that combustion vehicles can simply be operated climate-neutrally with synthetic fuels can also be dismissed as a diversionary tactic. The efficiency of this technology is so low that, compared to battery electric vehicles, a many times greater amount of electricity would be required. For this reason, synthetic fuels have their justification in niche applications (e.g. aviation) or as storage technology, but not as a comprehensive solution for cars.

In conclusion, it can be said that the question of whether e-cars are climate-friendly is not a real debate. The facts are available and speak for themselves. As with climate protection in general, the line of conflict is different: on the one hand, there are objective, fact-driven studies. On the other hand, there are publications that attempt to protect the interests of an obsolete technology by presenting incomplete or one-sided information.

If you want to be mobile in a climate-friendly way, it is best not to use a car. And those who are still dependent on a car should in good conscience start looking for an energy-efficient e-car and charge it with green electricity whenever possible.