Even in European countries with the dirtiest electricity, electric cars are cleaner than diesel

Theres more to consider than just the tailpipe.
Theres more to consider than just the tailpipe.
Image: Peter Nicholls/Reuters
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Opposition to the electric-car revolution has long argued that if one accounts for the well-to-wheel impact—the pollution produced from the entire cycle of power generation to fuel a car, rather than just the gasoline to power it—battery-powered vehicles are not necessarily any cleaner than gas-powered ones because of the dirty ways we produce electricity.

Scientific American reported last year that in countries like India, China, and even Australia–where coal is still the predominant energy source—the demands placed on the electricity grid from the production, then charging of electric vehicles may actually be worse than a hybrid or even a highly efficient gasoline car.

But a new draft study (pdf) prepared by the Vrije Universiteit Brussel for the NGO Transport and Environment, a European advocacy group focused on advocating sustainable transportation solutions, finds that, in a number of a European countries, electric cars are always better than diesel cars. Take Poland, for instance. According to the International Energy Alliance, Poland still received 50% of its total energy production from coal, the dirtiest of all energy sources, in 2016, meaning that the way that power was generated to power that Tesla or Nissan Leaf was not the cleanest.

Still, the study shows that a battery-powered vehicle in Poland, well-to-wheel, emits 25% less carbon dioxide over its lifetime than a diesel car.

This is of particular importance in Europe where, in an effort to meet Kyoto protocol goals, Europeans turned to diesel because, though it produces more smog-causing particulate matter, diesel is actually slightly better than unleaded gas terms of its production of carbon dioxide; in 2014, more than 50% of European cars ran off diesel.

In the US, where the majority of consumer cars run on unleaded gas (pdf), electric cars can win out, too. A study by the Union of Concerned Scientists earlier this year found that well-to-wheel, “for over 70% of Americans, driving an [electric vehicle] results in fewer emissions than even a 50mpg gasoline vehicle.”

And as the cost of renewable energy continues to decline worldwide, resulting in cleaner energy sources, and advances in battery technology makes energy storage more efficient, lighter, and energy dense, the environmental advantages of electric over gas-powered cars will only become more pronounced.

Correction: This article has been updated to clarify that electric vehicles in Europe are cleaner than diesel vehicles, but that this is not the case everywhere in the world. It has also been updated to note that the VUB report was prepared for the NGO Transport and Environment.