Could choosing your next car turn out to be the biggest climate action you ever take?

Could choosing your next car turn out to be the biggest climate action you ever take?

Despite a decade of research and headlines, the question of how green electric cars are seems to stay. If we can offer a truly personal answer, maybe the climate benefits of switching to electric are greater than we imagined.

Richard Curtis co-launched a fantastic campaign last year. It’s called Make My Money Matter and is a call to action for individuals to tackle the climate crisis by switching their pension from the default fund to a green option.

Fundamental to the campaign is this research conclusion: “Making your pension green is 21x more powerful than giving up flying, going veggie and switching energy provider.” They found that this one action would save 19 tonnes of greenhouse gases.

This got me thinking – after all the studies I have seen saying how good they are for the planet, couldn’t the switch to an electric car be just as powerful?

This sounded like a great project as I built my climate data start up, Other Way.

After nine months of hard graft, I am very pleased to announce that… it depends. But, we have created a way to give you your own carbon footprint story.

Here is a summary of what I learned about the pursuit of EV carbon footprint data.

“How green are electric cars?” Have we not answered this question already?

Study after study after study confirms that electric vehicles are an important way of tackling climate change. Policy seems to have broadly adopted these findings. Despite this, popular concern about the green credentials of these “zero emission vehicles” lingers. Why is this?

First, let’s consider the media. In the years between Diesel-gate and governments announcing the ultimate phase out of petrol and diesel car sales, the electric car began carrying this “captain of green living” emblem across the television and printed media. A car being plugged into a charger is one of the more regular stock image to accompany any discussion of climate solutions or air quality.

During those same years, however, the scrutiny of the electric vehicle’s carbon footprint ramped up, becoming a go-to subject for popular journalism. I can see why.

The most popular articles criticising electric vehicle carbon footprints commonly fell into two groups. Opinion pieces offering cherry-picked evidence, alongside a bingo card of other common EV myths. And, articles that report on academic results via an attention-grabbing headline and sometimes, a follow up article that address the whole story, but without that exciting title.

I saw a diverse group of readers sharing this journalism, showing support or dismay for their findings.

These included existing EV owners who understand a “zero emission vehicle” is referring to the tailpipe and may want to defend the evidence. There are those who are sceptical of the sudden switch away from the status quo to an immature technology. There are those who are in favour of ditching fossil fuels but are sceptical about this approach to sustainability (it is counter-intuitive to build something new rather than reuse and repair what is already existing).

But, the group least easy for me to notice is the general public with little engagement in the EV or climate conversation so far. That does not mean they don’t have an opinion on it. As I introduced my project to many outside my bubble of friends, family and colleagues, I was often met with an informed query about the carbon footprint of electric cars and their personal scenario. The question often begins “I have been wondering what to do with my old diesel…” and the conversation becomes a personal fleet consultancy.

What strikes me is that this group dwarves the others put together. They will be buying more EVs than have been deployed so far.

I changed my attitude towards the question “how green are electric cars?” It remains an interesting question, not in providing high level conclusions, but in providing specific stories that accommodate any driver’s situation.

Shifting from the tailpipe to the factory: how has the research progressed?

We reviewed dozens of studies that focused on comparing the LCA (life cycle analysis) of petrol or diesel with electric cars. There was a near consensus that electric vehicles use more carbon emissions to build but have a lower impact on climate change across their life span.

Some data are more easily accessible than others. Information about the efficiency of a vehicle is common, thanks to decades of regulation. Organisations, such as the ICCT, focus on supporting real world emissions estimates on top of the results of an industry test cycle.

The most common deviation came from calculating electricity emissions. Grid mixes vary widely from country to country, region to region. Many studies highlight areas where high coal use impacts the use of electric cars. What happens if charging an electric car can be directly linked to using additional gas turbines?

There were two elements of the calculation that I felt needed more in-depth investigation. One was the emissions involved in sourcing petrol and diesel – if we are comparing apples with apples, we must give this topic as much scrutiny as we do the electricity grid.

The other element was the build phase emissions. How do we estimate the impact of the supply chain of every part that goes into this product? A crucial part of the calculation is the high impact of battery production, a topic that is increasingly popular for journalists to investigate. How do we ensure these emissions are represented fairly?

As we move towards tailpipe-free vehicles, the scrutiny of manufacturing electric vehicles is accommodating wider conversations around the sustainability of industry generally. For the first time, we are seeing manufacturers exploring circular economy strategies and natural capital concepts. If these are delivered upon, actions to mitigate local and global environmental issues will reach beyond the climate agenda and beyond the automotive sector.

When we compared reports that used “average car” factors with LCA studies that used specific named makes and models, we noticed a substantial difference between each individual vehicle. While the general conclusion of EV being better overall applies, just how much better is hidden without exploring each vehicle individually.

Few manufacturers publish full carbon footprint reports on their cars. Volvo and Polestar are leading here, with other interesting studies from Tesla and Volkswagen emerging into public view. But, carbon footprint data remains a gap across the sector.

I wanted to find a way to address that data gap for the general public.

So, how big a contribution is a switch to electric going to have? Let’s ask Climate Wheels.

As my anti-climactic introducing suggested, it depends. And, it depends a lot.

Using the software that Other Way offers to businesses, we built a free tool called Climate Wheels to help people get their own estimate. Combining official car data, regional grid data, LCA data and a host of other emissions factors, Other Way created a carbon footprint calculator for the UK’s cars.

To answer my original question, I took a very typical car on the roads today (I chose a petrol Ford Fiesta from 2013) and compared that to a close equivalent EV purchasable today (a Vauxhall Corsa-e).

This resulted in 13t of greenhouse gases avoided, so, short of the 19t of greenhouse gases avoided in the Make My Money Matter pension switch, but still a substantial impact.

This is just one example and there are millions of switches which would offer greater savings. I have found results from cutting 80t of greenhouse gases through to actually increasing emissions (don’t get an electric car if you don’t plan to drive it anywhere).

If you want to make the most effective action without going car-free altogether, downsize your car. If you have a large, inefficient petrol car today and choose to scrap it, in favour of getting a smaller electric one with the right sized battery for your needs, the carbon savings would be tremendous.

Other Way’s founding mission is to enhance climate action by making data engaging and accessible for any journey and any vehicle. We do this through offering accurate data to other businesses. With Climate Wheels, we hope consumers can get confidence in the choices they make. They may be driven to make the switch to electric for cost or lifestyle reasons, but, this one decision may well become their single most powerful contribution to climate action.

About the author

Alex is a consultant researching sustainable transport and the EV sector over the last decade. He is the founder of Other Way, a climate data start up for mobility.

Alexander Lewis-Jones

September 28, 2022

Written by

Alexander Lewis-Jones

Alex is a consultant researching sustainable transport and the EV sector over the last decade.