According to a study conducted by the Ifo, under the leadership of German physics professor Christoph Buchal, the CO2 emissions of electric vehicles are higher than those of diesel cars. The Belgian newspaper De Standaard published this claim on their website on the 18th of April. We rate this claim as mostly false.
Europe wants to reduce the CO2 emissions of its transport sector by 40% by 2030. In order to achieve this goal, Germany wants to stimulate the transition to electric cars. However, a study conducted by Ifo under the direction of Professor Christoph Buchal shows that in Germany, the CO2 emissions of electric vehicles are higher than those of diesel cars. At least, that’s what the study says using a comparison between the Tesla Model 3 and the Mercedes C220d diesel car.
There are two reasons why the diesel car is considered as ‘better’ than an electric car. First of all, there is the production of the battery for an electric car. This production requires a considerable amount of energy. In addition, the batteries contain various raw materials such as lithium and cobalt, and these raw materials have to be mined. This means that the production of a Tesla Model 3 battery releases some 11 to 15 tonnes of CO2, according to the German researchers. They also take an average lifetime of ten years per battery and assume that people will drive around 15,000 kilometres per year. If we take these data, a Tesla Model 3 would emit 73 to 98 grams of CO2 per kilometre.
Secondly, and very important in this study, the research was conducted in Germany. The conditions and means by which the batteries are produced must therefore be taken into account. In Germany, on average, more than a third of the electricity is produced from lignite and charcoal, which are by far the largest emitters of CO2 among electricity producers. If we look at Belgium, where the electricity is mainly derived from low-CO2 nuclear or renewable energy, we see that the emission of electric cars there is on average three to four times lower than that of an internal combustion engine. So the claim of the German researchers is not completely wrong as far as Germany is concerned, but it is not at all representative for the whole world.
We have also enlisted the help of some experts in the field to investigate this claim and to see what is true and what is not.
First in line is Gunter De Pooter, expert in sustainable transport: “There is indeed, worldwide, a discussion on this subject, which has been going on for about two years’, he says. ‘Back in 2017, The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has also published an article, questioning the green image of electric cars. All these articles give rise to fact-checking, which is important in the world of electric driving because the truth is always in the middle and there will always be supporters and opponents.”
“When comparing an electric motor with an internal combustion engine, it becomes clear that the latter requires up to 4 to 5 times more energy to make the same mechanical movement. The electric motor has very little energy loss, which explains why they’re widely used. Not only in cars but also in factories, because they’re really energy efficient. An electric motor in an industrial installation has a loss of only 3-4%, and the same applies to cars. Other than that, the lifespan of such an engine is 5 to 6 times longer than that of an internal combustion engine. So, a diesel engine needs more energy, which means that it will also emit more CO2 and on top of that the engine has a shorter lifespan. Two arguments in favour of the electric motor”, tells De Pooter.
However, there’s a big discussion going on, explains De Pooter: “What about the environmental cost, the impact of making a battery and where will the power come from? These are all things that, in general, are known very little about. Much depends on the quality of the battery. If the materials in the battery are not of sufficient quality, the car will not operate optimally. And it is very important to know that these factors vary from country to country.”
We also spoke with Mark Pecqueur, lecturer in vehicle technologies at Thomas More University College in Mechelen, Belgium. He clarified that Buchal’s claim would be correct in the past, but not anymore today because the electric cars have greatly evolved the last few years together with the production of their batteries: “Moreover, Buchal has only compared two models so that seems insufficient to draw such a general conclusion.”
“In the past, the production of electric cars demanded a lot of energy. Old electric cars in Germany, from 5 or 6 years old were indeed not the best alternative. But when we look at the more recent electric cars, it quickly becomes clear that the energy we need to produce the batteries has dropped dramatically. And also the way in which the batteries are produced had evolved”, Pecqueur says. Like Gunter De Pooter, he refers here to the low-carbon energy used in Belgium, but also to the environmentally unfriendly materials used in Germany
Besides that, the use of rare materials such as cobalt is an issue that still needs to be solved, Mark Pecquer continues: “These materials are often produced in appalling conditions and sometimes even involve child labour. We have to look for materials that are not that rare, and that’s something that’s not given enough attention to these days. If we don’t use alternatives for these rare materials in the long run, we’ll be faced with a problem. We should take an example from China, where hydrogen is used. This avoids the use of rare materials on the one hand and on the other it brings along zero emissions. However, I think it will take a long time before the electric cars really break through and we will all be convinced that this is the best solution.”
We can conclude that the claim: ‘Electric cars generate higher emissions than diesel cars’ is mostly false. The German investigators have only compared two models: an electric Tesla Model 3 and a Mercedes C220d diesel car. Secondly, Buchal and his coworkers did an investigation in Germany and then generalized their claim. More than a third of the electricity in Germany is produced from lignite and charcoal, which are by far the largest emitters of CO2 among electricity producers. Finally, in the last few years, the electric cars have greatly evolved and so has the production of their batteries. The investigation of the German researchers is interesting but the information is not representative on a large scale and is also a bit obsolete. Therefore, this claim is mostly false.
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