New Report On Electric Vehicles From A Life Cycle & Circular Economy Perspective

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Prior to the Danish government’s recent climate plan, the Danish Climate Council released a report from which I highlighted a comparison of total vehicle lifetime emissions of different vehicle types. The battery electric vehicle (BEV) was a clear winner. Now, a new report from the European Environment Agency (EEA) concludes the same.

The report “Electric vehicles from life cycle and circular economy perspectives” is a result of the Transport and Environment Reporting Mechanism (TERM) at EEA, in which they bring together the most recent data (although not all data are entirely new) to create a complete assessment of the cradle-to-grave resource use. The report has this note on the European strategy to adapt circular economy:

In December 2015, the European Commission introduced the EU action plan for the circular economy, which addressed the whole product life cycle from design and production through consumption to waste management. This action plan forms part of the circular economy package, which includes proposals to revise key elements of the EU waste acquis (accumulated legislation, legal acts and court decisions as they relate to EU law) including directives on end-of-life vehicles and batteries.

The report is divided into 4 separate concrete assessment areas: Raw materials, production, use, and end-of-life. It also includes 3 overall environmental assessment areas: Climate change, health impacts, and ecosystem impacts.

The key objectives of the report are to “bring together existing evidence on the environmental impact of BEVs across the life cycle stages and, where possible, compare them with ICEVs.” And to “consider how a move to a circular economy could reduce these current impacts.”

At the end of the report it’s clear that the BEV has the least impact. But before we look at a few details, let’s see how the sales of plug-in cars are developing in Europe.

Market share — new electric vehicles in the EU-28

There can be little doubt left as to what is happening in this market. In my opinion the plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV) is a bridge technology, and although they thrive currently, there is reason to believe the BEV will be all dominating before the end of the next decade, mainly due to falling battery costs. This is why it is important to assess if the rise of BEVs is in fact the good development in terms of lower environmental impact that it’s thought to be. The report is very detailed, so here I’ll just put forward a few examples.

The impact by everyday use of a vehicle is probably the most interesting for anyone in search for a practical passenger car. The following is based on the current energy mix in Europe, and despite the variation in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from electricity generation, it’s clear that the BEV is the best choice (REEV stands for Range Extended Electric Vehicles, like the BMW i3 Rex).

Comparison of in-use well-to-wheel GHG emissions per km for a range of passenger car drivetrains

Two factors are important to note here. First, the electricity generation is getting greener every day, so your plug-in vehicle is getting greener every day. Second, the further an electric car drives, the more it offsets its production and end-of-life impact. Again, as I have said before, studies like the one in question tend to grossly underestimate the life span of BEVs compared to ICEVs.

The graph below is great for showing that the difference in total GHG emissions is significant for the whole range of car classes. It’s important to get the message through that even a luxury BEV is less polluting than a mini ICEV, provided they reach a normal yearly mileage. It’s clear that even a luxury BEV offsets its higher manufacturing environmental impact just a little bit slower than the mini BEV, whereas just one luxury ICEV has the same total emissions as a mini ICEV and a mini BEV. But since the graph is based on a lifetime of 180,000 km (112,000 miles) for both BEVs and ICEV, the BEV numbers are very conservative.

The BEV contains a fraction of moving parts compared to the ICEV, and there is no reason to believe that the one fragile part in the system, the battery, should not hold a capacity above 90% for at least 200,000 miles by today’s manufacturing standards. And even then, it’s actually not broken, and most people won’t even notice the capacity dipping under 90% because they won’t use the full range very often anyway, at least not when we are talking modern +200 mile range cars like the Tesla Model 3 and Hyundai Kona. By the way, Tesla’s target for their cars is 7x the life of an ICEV.

In-use GHG emissions of BEVs and ICEVs in a range of size segments across the lifetime mileage (180,000 km)

The report tries to assess the climate impact by combining the different phases of the vehicles’ life. The result is quite interesting. The BEV is the better choice, but how much better will it get? It’s clear that renewable energy will make a huge difference, and as mentioned above, time will probably show the lifetime of BEVs surpassing that of ICEVs, but what about the benefits of economies of scale when this market takes off? Note that the impact of the base BEV is the same as the base ICEV, without economies of scale.

Climate change impacts: example comparison of BEVs with ICEVs

I reached out to EEA and asked how low the life cycle climate impact of the BEV could get once economies of scale kicked in? And also, when economies of scale diminishes for ICEVs (like GM closing 5 factories) will that be more like a crash than a phaseout? Andreas Unterstaller, Transport and Environment Expert at EEA answered:

There are good reasons to assume that material and energy efficiency improve when the production of electric vehicles increases from relatively small volumes to mass production. However, the available literature does not allow for linking that progress to concrete reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, it is also possible that some of these reductions might already have kicked in for electric vehicles and their batteries as many of the relevant life-cycle analyses are now already a couple of years old.

Yet, I’m sure we have only seen the tip of the iceberg. Also, just imagine if Tony Seba’s wild predictions about the automotive realm of 2030 manifests: Car fleet will be 20% of the current, and 95% of all passenger miles will be electric and autonomous. It might be ludicrous to imagine such a scenario, but the environmental impact of cars would then be a mere shadow of what it is today. However, to be clear on the insecurity of predictions, the report notes the following:

For vehicle use, the research highlighted that robust evidence on annual mileage, trip purpose and lifetime mileage is currently limited because consumer uptake of BEVs was very low until relatively recently. Future research on this topic could make use of data from national travel surveys and periodic roadworthiness tests, the latter being mandatory across the EU. BEVs could help transition society to a more sustainable form of mobility. Here, shared mobility could play a role for a number of reasons. First, it enables testing of electric vehicles, which has been shown to reduce range anxiety. This in turn could have impacts in terms of expectations of vehicle range and as a result allow the use of lighter, ‘lower’ energy batteries with the associated GHG reductions in the production phase. Second, shared mobility, especially where it allows consumers access to a range of vehicles, could help ensure the choice of the most appropriate car for their needs. Third, while BEVs have an important role to play in terms of future mobility, it is essential to consider the role of BEVs alongside public transport and active travel (i.e. walking and cycling) modes.

Good points. In fact, it’s my own personal experience that, as congestion rises in the city I work in, I tend to park further away from my workplace and walk more, or ride my bike, which actually saves me both time and money, and is healthy too. It will be interesting to see if autonomous electric transportation will make it easier to incorporate that active travel factor in our daily commute, or if we will just get even more comfortable and lazy.

All images from the EEA report.

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Jesper Berggreen

Jesper had his perspective on the world expanded vastly after having attended primary school in rural Africa in the early 1980s. And while educated a computer programmer and laboratory technician, working with computers and lab-robots at the institute of forensic medicine in Aarhus, Denmark, he never forgets what life is like having nothing. Thus it became obvious for him that technological advancement is necessary for the prosperity of all humankind, sharing this one vessel we call planet earth. However, technology has to be smart, clean, sustainable, widely accessible, and democratic in order to change the world for the better. Writing about clean energy, electric transportation, energy poverty, and related issues, he gets the message through to anyone who wants to know better. Jesper is founder of and a long-term investor in Tesla, Ørsted, and Vestas.

Jesper Berggreen has 243 posts and counting. See all posts by Jesper Berggreen