Electric cars have long been heralded as the great green hope of motoring, but a new study suggests they might be more harmful to the environment than their petrol- or diesel-powered counterparts.
The Norwegian University of Science and Technology published a report that examined how the production, use and the end-of-life dismantling of electric cars affects the environment. It found that electric car factories emitted more toxic waste than conventional car plants, that carbon dioxide emissions increased if coal was used to create the electricity the cars run on, and that disposing of electric cars all caused significant environmental damage.
Co-author of the report, Professor Anders Hammer Stromman, believes the global warming potential from electric vehicle production is about twice that of conventional vehicles.
In addition, the creation of batteries and electric motors contributes enormously to an electric car's toxic footprint, as they require a significant amount of harmful minerals including copper, aluminium and nickel. The cars have already polluted the environment, says the report, before they've even been driven.
“Across the other impacts considered in the analysis including potential for effects related to acid rain, airborne particulate matter, smog, human toxicity, ecosystem toxicity and depletion of fossil fuel and mineral resources, electric vehicles consistently perform worse or on par with modern internal combustion engine vehicles, desptie virtually zero emissions during operation,” said the Prof.
The report acknowledges that electric cars could offer the potential for substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions if their batteries are charged with electricity created using low carbon sources.
It makes it clear, however, that in areas where the majority of electricity is produced using fossil fuels such as coal, electric cars are not of much benefit. “It is counterproductive,” says the report, “to promote electric vehicles in regions where electricity is produced from lignite, coal or even heavy oil combustion.”
Europe as a whole, says the report, is relatively well-suited to electric car use. Cars powered on the continent's current energy mix provide a 10 to 24 per cent decrease in their global warming potential compared to diesel or petrol-engined cars. However the suitability of UK energy for electric car use is debatable. As of 2010, more than half of the UK's fuel to produce electricity comes from overseas and much of it is created using coal.
Read the full report for yourself then, once you've digested the figures, let us know how you feel in the comments below.