Should I buy an electric car?

Cars are responsible for as much as a sixth of Britain’s greenhouse gas emissions, so this is an important area to target when it comes to living greener, but are electric cars the answer?

A car’s carbon emissions come from three sources: the burning of the fuel in the engine, the production and transport of the fuel, but also the manufacturing of the car in the first place; from the mining and processing of the raw materials to the energy used by all the component manufacturers and the assembly plant, and even the business travel and stationery for car company employees. This all mounts up. It’s not easy to be precise, but the carbon emissions from manufacturing can be of the same order as the exhaust emissions over a car’s lifetime. (more in this Guardian article)

So how do electric cars compare with petrol and diesel? Electric cars produce no emissions and no pollution where you drive them. So if all our cars were electric, the air quality in our towns and cities would improve enormously. But the carbon emissions from manufacturing an electric car are significantly (as much as 80%) higher. That’s partly because the light bodies needed for a electric vehicle take more energy to make, and partly because of the carbon emission from producing the batteries.

Then there’s the question of how the electricity to charge your car is produced. If it’s from a fossil fuel-fired power station then you’re just shifting the pollution from the streets to the power station and making little difference to the greenhouse gas emissions. These European Union figures from 2014 show how the average electricity production mix across the EU makes electric cars greener than petrol and diesel cars, but only by about 25%. If the electricity were entirely from renewables, e-cars would be about 70% greener.

And what would our lives in towns and cities be like if we simply replaced all our fossil fuel cars with electric ones? A report into electric cars  from the Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions paints a gloomy picture of traffic queues of autonomous electric vehicles filled with commuters working on the way to the office then failing to find parking spaces and leaving their cars to circle autonomously until they beckon them back to take them home… presumably working en route.  With obesity and unfitness also major health issues, the report calls for the government to devise strategies for us all to have good lives without cars. 

So do you buy an electric car? Internal combustion engines are on the way out. Before long… a decade, two decades… all new cars will be electric. But with so much of a car’s carbon emissions coming from the manufacturing process buying a new car is intrinsically un-green. Keeping your old car well maintained and running for as long as possible is better. And there are many simple ways to reduce the carbon emissions and pollution from your car that you can start doing today:

  • walk, cycle and use public transport
  • take the train or coach for longer journeys

When you do need to use a car:

  • keep the tyre pressure right for best fuel economy
  • share your car and offer lifts
  • group your car use errands into single trips
  • maintain your car well
  • drive greener – gentle acceleration and braking and sticking to the speed limits.

Here are some greener transport suggestions to add to your change list.

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