According to a new study, electric cars could become carbon neutral by 2050 – but if the possibility is to ever become reality, policy makers need to make a few key important changes.

Transport is responsible for a quarter of all CO2 emissions in the EU. Electric cars and other EVs offer hope that mobility could become more climate friendly in the future. Proponents of e-mobility see electric cars as the key to eco-friendly mobility, while critics complain that their carbon footprint isn’t actually that much better than conventional vehicles with combustion engines – especially when you consider the carbon emissions generated during the production of the batteries.

This new study shows that electric vehicles could be almost carbon neutral by 2050 – when taking into account their entire life cycle, from production to use and recycling. However according to the authors, if this to ever become a reality, all of the energy used throughout the vehicle’s life cycle has to be green, renewable energy. And the EU must take steps to encourage EV batteries to be sustainably reused or recycled.

The study entitled “Determining the environmental impacts of conventional and alternatively fuelled vehicles through LCA” was commissioned by the Directorate General of the European Commission and conducted by the British company Ricardo Energy & Environment in cooperation with ifeu – Institute for Energy and Environmental Research and E4tech. For their analysis, the researchers studied 14 types of power generation and 65 different vehicle/powertrain combinations across 7 vehicle types. This resulted in a comprehensive life cycle assessment that is intended to provide political decision-makers and the EU Commission alike with a basis of information on how to combat environmental issues in the transport sector.

Electric cars could provide practically zero emission mobility

While an electric-powered mid-range car in the EU in 2020 emits an average of 120g of CO2 equivalent per kilometre over its entire life cycle, the value could, according to the study, drop to 33g by 2050. However, this would only happen if EU policy were to be in line with the targets set by the Paris Climate Agreement and we were on track to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. If renewable energies were used in all areas of the vehicle’s life cycle, the CO2 emissions of electric vehicles could drop to near zero, according to the authors of the study. Even then, electric vehicles would still require more resources than conventional vehicles, but most of these could be obtained, processed and largely returned to the cycle using renewable energies.

However, the production of eletric car engines still requires the mining and use of many valuable and most importantly, finite, resources such as copper, cobalt and lithium. That’s why, according to the study, electric cars will still perform worse than combustion engines in 2050 when it comes to the issue of resource use. This means it’s all the mort important that we promote the most sustainable possible use – and extraction – of these resources and the recycling of batteries. “While we are already on the right track when it comes to charging electricity in Europe, we must put more focus on the process of vehicle and battery production in the future. Sustainable supply chains and recycling management are gaining in importance,” emphasizes Hinrich Helms, who lead the study at the ifeu.

In terms of energy use, the study assumes that electricity from wind energy will make up the largest part of the electricity mix in 2050 compared to 2020. The different national strategies, ambitions and technologies of the individual EU countries regarding renewable energies were taken into account.

Electric cars are already more eco-friendly than people assume

According to another study by the Eindhoven University of Technology, electric cars are already consuming significantly less CO2 than previously assumed. According to the study, electric cars currently being sold emit significantly less greenhouse gases than internal combustion engines – even when battery production and power consumption are taken into account. Previous studies had assumed that the production of one kilowatt hour of battery capacity would produce 175 kg of CO2. This value is now obsolete. Based on current data from the electric car manufacturer Tesla, the authors now calculate an average value of just 75 kilograms of CO2 per kilowatt hour of battery capacity.

The new findings are not only due to a less climate-damaging battery production than previously assumed, but also to the longer lifespan and their power storage systems. The scientists at Eindhoven University of Technology predict an average lifetime of 250,000 kilometers for both car and battery.

Entscheidend dafür, wie klimafreundlich Elektroautos in Europa in Zukunft wirklich sein werden, sind, über die technischen Möglichkeiten hinaus, die Regierungen der europäischen Länder und deren Maßnahmen zum Klimaschutz. Denn diese entscheiden zu einem erheblichen Teil über den Ausbau erneuerbarer Energien, die Förderung des Recyclings wichtiger Rohstoffe und nachhaltige Produktions- und Lieferketten. Denn nur wenn diese Schritte, zusätzlichen zu den nötigen Maßnahmen zur Einhaltung der Pariser Klimaziele, in Kraft treten, können auch Elektroautos klimafreundlicher werden.

When it comes to determining just how eco-friendly electric cars really will be in Europe in the future, the main deciding factor isn’t technological, but instead political. It comes down to European countries’ governments and the environmental protection measures that they choose to put in place. After all, they are the ones largely responsible for the expansion of renewable energies, the promotion of the recycling of important raw materials and also for sustainable production and supply chains. Only if those sustainable changes come into force, alongside the measures necessary to meet the Paris climate targets, can we electric cars truly become Europe’s solution for zero carbon mobility.

This is a translation of an original article that first appeared on RESET’s German-language site.

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