Yes, Electric Vehicles Are Better for the Environment in 95 Percent of the World

Caroline Delbert
Photo credit: Tristan Paviot/Getty

From Popular Mechanics

  • Electric cars reduce emissions by an average of 70 percent, varying by where people live and drive.
  • New studies confirm that electric grids around the world are shifting to more renewable sources.
  • Researchers hope these findings will help build momentum for renewable energy in cars and the grid.

Researchers have released new findings and data that will hopefully put harmful myths about electric vehicle emissions to rest. Studies from two universities in Europe found that electric vehicles are environmentally preferable in 95 percent of the world, and the only exceptions are in places that still rely almost entirely on burning coal to make electricity, according to a BBC report.

Renewable energy in general is in a transitional time, and this is perhaps best embodied by how many electric vehicles are hybrids that still use a small amount of fossil fuels—or a lot, if you’ve been running the Nürburgring in your Chevy Volt. Covering any emerging research or technology about electric vehicles, nuclear plants, or different kinds of solar farms can feel like playing Rock Paper Scissors, where everything must “win” over something else until they all form a circle.

“The researchers say average ‘lifetime’ emissions from electric cars are up to 70 [percent] lower than petrol cars in countries like Sweden and France (where most electricity comes from renewables and nuclear), and around 30 [percent] lower in the UK,” the BBC reports. This is a key point where critics of renewables have gotten hung up, because if you plug your vehicle into an electric grid that works mostly by burning coal, is that even better? As more and more places use renewables for some of their power generation, this argument has (pun intended) lost steam.

Getting through this transitional time, when emissions numbers are better—but not best yet—and when many governments around the world are still installing and prototyping solar and wind farms for use on a larger scale, is critical to a carbon neutral future, the scientists say. By 2050, a world of fully electric vehicles will have lowered emissions, just from vehicles, by an amount equivalent to the yearly emissions of the nation of Russia. (And in that time, Russia will likely have far less than today’s year of emissions there.)

This process isn’t without massive obstacles, though. The relatively small number of renewable energy vehicles are putting minimal strain on their electrical grids right now, but if everyone plugged in a Tesla or a Nissan Leaf to replace a conventional fuel vehicle, the grid would likely be pushed back into the demand area where many more places would use more coal.

Elon Musk’s successful new “backup battery” farm in rural southern Australia, and technology to help isolate and gently dim small areas under pressure, could represent a way forward for grids that would otherwise delve into coal generation as their backup.

It’s also a big deal for so much of the world to make enough renewable energy to validate a study like this, indicating that renewables are making inroads in almost every kind of place and at every scale. The researchers say we could do even better if we set stricter, sooner emissions goals than the widely used 2050 time frame.

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