Electric cars absolutely do produce less CO2 than gas guzzlers, a new study has confirmed – countering claims that carbon emissions from the manufacture of electric cars and the production of electricity outweighed the savings on the road.
Crunching the numbers on data collected from 59 different regions in the world that represent 95 percent of the world's transport and heating demand, researchers found that electric cars lead to an overall loss in CO2 output in the vast majority of places.
As electricity generation gets less carbon-intensive, the balance will tip away from petrol cars even further. In countries like Sweden and France, where a lot of electricity is generated from renewables and nuclear, over their lifetimes electric cars can account for 70 percent less in terms of carbon emissions than petrol equivalents, when all the factors are included.
The team also looked at the impact of electric heat pumps as a low-carbon option for home heating, and found they too were better for the environment overall, with electricity generation taken into account.
"The idea that electric vehicles or electric heat pumps could increase emissions is essentially a myth," says environmental scientist Florian Knobloch, from Radboud University in the Netherlands.
"We've seen a lot of discussion about this recently, with lots of disinformation going around. Here is a definitive study that can dispel those myths. We have run the numbers for all around the world, looking at a whole range of cars and heating systems."
"Even in our worst-case scenario, there would be a reduction in emissions in almost all cases. This insight should be very useful for policy-makers."
The researchers concluded that as it stands today, electric cars are better for the climate than petrol-powered ones in 95 percent of the world. The small number of exceptions include countries such as Poland, where the electricity generation process is still largely dependent on coal. (You can look up your own country in the team's supplementary tables published here.)
With the world now moving towards renewable fuels, there should soon be no exceptions. By 2050, if governments put the right policies into place, one in every two cars on the road could be electric, saving some 1.5 gigatons of carbon emissions a year.
"Taking into account emissions from manufacturing and ongoing energy use, it's clear that we should encourage the switch to electric cars and household heat pumps without any regrets," says Knobloch.
The researchers are calling on governments and policy makers not to delay in terms of pushing the switch to electric – even accelerating the changeover by a year or two could save a huge amount of CO2 being put into the atmosphere.
There are still lots of challenges ahead, in terms of producing electric cars, generating more electricity from renewable sources, improving charging infrastructure – and getting more people to ditch the car altogether. However, we know the direction we need to go in.
"The answer is clear: to reduce carbon emissions, we should choose electric cars and household heat pumps over fossil fuel alternatives," says computational scientist Jean-Francois Mercure, from the University of Exeter in the UK.
The research has been published in Nature Sustainability.