Innovation


Electric vehicle emissions explained.

25 January 2021

With global sales of electric vehicles moving into the fast lane, the road to our automotive future is clear. So what role do electric vehicles play in tackling climate change? We look at the facts.

Innovation


Electric vehicle emissions explained.

25 January 2021

With global sales of electric vehicles moving into the fast lane, the road to our automotive future is clear. So what role do electric vehicles play in tackling climate change? We look at the facts.

Aerial shot of Mercedes-Benz vehicle driving.

Electric vehicles (EVs) are an important part of meeting global goals on climate change. Image: Daimler.

Sales of electric vehicles (EVs) accelerated in many major markets worldwide in 2020, despite the punishing economic impacts of COVID-19.

It’s clear the era of the electrified automobile is upon us, but given the energy intensity of EV battery production, questions have long been asked about whether they really are a panacea for our warming planet.

According to The Guardian, global sales of electric vehicles accelerated in 2020, rising by 43 per cent to more than three million vehicles, despite overall new car sales slumping by a fifth during the coronavirus pandemic.

Citing data from Sweden-based consultancy EV-volumes.com, The Guardian reported that EV sales in Europe more than doubled in 2020, overtaking China which had been the world’s biggest market for EVs.

In Australia, sales of EVs still represent only a tiny percentage of overall new car sales, amounting to just 1769 vehicles last year in an overall market of 916,968 vehicles. But even with the limited range of EV models available, figures from the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries show that EV sales increased by 16.2 per cent in 2020, while the overall market declined 13.7 per cent.

It is clear the future is electric, with manufacturers such as Mercedes-Benz investing heavily in the research and development of a rapidly growing range of all-electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles. Mercedes-Benz estimates electric vehicles will account for some 50 per cent of its global sales by 2030 and has pledged to make its passenger car fleet carbon neutral by 2039.

This ambitious target is emblematic of the pace of change occurring within the automotive industry more broadly, with leading research and consultancy firm McKinsey & Co. suggesting that shifting vehicle portfolios from internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles to EVs “is now a paramount focus for traditional automakers”.

BloombergNEF forecasts that some 28 per cent of global passenger vehicle sales will be electric by 2030, with China and Europe expected to account for 72 per cent of these sales. MSN Motoring Research suggests that this radical shift is being driven by a combination of regulatory changes and shifting consumer demand.

A growing number of governments have now set an end date for the sale of new fossil fuel-powered vehicles. In November 2020, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a ban on sales of new petrol and diesel vehicles from 2030. Other countries including Ireland, the Netherlands and Sweden have committed to the same goal, while the US state of California has set a target of 2035.

The World Resource Institute’s Climate Data Explorer estimates that transport-based emissions account for 24 per cent of global carbon dioxide (CO2) output, so it’s clear that electric vehicles have the potential to play a crucial role in decarbonising our economy.

But questions have long been raised about the environmental benefits or otherwise of switching to EVs if the dominant source of power is C02-generating, such as Australia’s largely coal-fired power grid.

In its 2016 Interim Report on the retirement of coal-fired power stations in Australia, the Senate Standing Committee on Environment and Communications concluded that coal-fired generation makes up 78 per cent of electricity generation across the country.

An EV charging from a coal-fired power grid is not going to have the positive environmental impact it could have if it were being charged by renewables. But the Electric Vehicle Council’s State of EVs 2020 report states that, even when charged from the coal-fired electricity grid, EVs still compare favourably on C02 emissions versus an ICE-powered vehicle.

Citing a 2019 Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources report that projected EV and ICE emissions out to 2030, the Electric Vehicle Council said the average emissions intensity of grid electricity is projected to decline. As such, the emissions associated with the use of an EV per kilometre travelled is projected to improve by 33 per cent over the next 10 years, while for ICE vehicles the reduction is just 11 per cent.

This position is supported by leading UK-based climate science website Carbonbrief.org, which acknowledged that in countries such as Australia the benefits of EVs are smaller – about on par with the most fuel-efficient plug-in hybrid vehicles. However, the report found that as countries decarbonise electricity generation to meet their climate targets, driving emissions will fall for existing EVs and manufacturing emissions will fall for new EVs.

Mercedes-Benz EQA charging.

The EQA is the latest addition to the Mercedes-Benz electric vehicle fleet. Image: Daimler.

Australia’s fast-developing electric vehicle sector, including public fast-charging network providers such as Chargefox, are already helping drive this change by powering their charging stations with renewable energy.

The City of Gold Coast earlier this year installed the world’s first Australian-made Tritium RTM75 fast chargers. The power for these 10 charging stations will be offset by a Virtual Power Plant, which harnesses solar energy from more than 47 city buildings. Tritium’s partnership with Intertie in the United States is another example that sees the Brisbane-based company’s DC fast charging technology connected with underground battery storage and solar canopies that harness and store clean energy.

But tailpipe emissions certainly aren’t the only factor in creating a sustainable, zero emissions transport future. For Mercedes-Benz and its parent company Daimler AG, the way forward is outlined in its Ambition 2039 strategy, which charts the path for the complete de-carbonisation of all Mercedes-Benz products and production by 2039.

Aerial view of Daimler’s Factory 56 in Sindelfingen, Germany.

Daimler is establishing a new network of clean, green factories that rely on renewable energy sources such as hydro and solar power and use up to 85 per cent of recycled materials in vehicle production. Image: Daimler.

Key to this strategy is the establishment of a new network of clean, green factories that rely on renewable energy sources such as hydro and solar power and use up to 85 per cent of recycled materials in vehicle production. A prototype for this new generation of car plants is already operating near Stuttgart in Germany. Factory 56 at the Sindelfingen plant is the first completely carbon-free car factory in the world.

Daimler’s Factory 56 in Sindelfingen, Germany

Factory 56 in Sindelfingen, Germany will be a zero-carbon factory – completely CO2-neutral and with significantly reduced energy requirements. Image: Daimler.

Carbonbrief.org reports that around half of the emissions from battery production come from the electricity used in manufacturing and assembling the batteries. Hence, if manufacturers are increasingly producing batteries in regions with relatively low-carbon electricity, or in factories powered by renewable energy, battery-related emissions will be substantially reduced. Additionally, as battery prices fall and vehicle manufacturers start including larger batteries with longer driving ranges, reduced emissions from battery production can have an even greater impact on the climate.

By Ged Bulmer