The carbon footprint of electric vehicles [embedded, operational and end-of-life emissions] [Part 1]

Many of our clients are considering the purchase of electric vehicles, either as a trial or for replacing part or even all of their existing light fleet. Electric vehicles are touted as one of the solutions to our climate crisis, but are they really emissions free? To analyse this question, we are publishing three blog posts. The first (this one), will focus on the carbon footprint of electric vehicles.

The second article will discuss three considerations when making a ‘zero emissions’ claim for your electric vehicles. The third article in the series will show you strategies for ‘zero emissions’ claims both for ‘onsite and offsite’ charging.

The difference between embedded, operational and end-of-life carbon emissions

Have a look at the following graphic. The emissions are split into embedded, operational and end-of-life emissions – three stages, which roughly follow the lifecycle of a car.

The carbon footprint of Electric Vehicles
The carbon footprint of electric vehicles

1 Embedded carbon emissions in cars

Every human-made object, like a book, clothing, or a car has embedded carbon emissions. Most objects consist of multiple materials that must be obtained from nature, usually from mining.

For a car, you need to mine oil to obtain plastic. You also need to mine other materials like metals. Mining is usually done by burning a lot of diesel.

The constituent materials are then processed and transported (using a lot of diesel) to a factory where the car is put together.

The carbon emissions during the manufacturing process depend on the energy sources that are being used and the energy mix of the grid of the country, area or facility in which the car is produced. The greener the energy that is being used, the fewer emissions in the production process. Ideally, the energy used would be renewable.

From the manufacturing plant, the car needs to be transported to distribution centres, then shipped, then further transported until it ends up in your hands. These upstream transport activities are based on burning diesel.

All processes, from mining to when you use the car, cause carbon emissions – together, these are called ‘embedded’ or ‘embodied’ emissions. From a carbon accounting perspective, embedded emissions are classified as Scope 3.

Both electric vehicles (EVs) and vehicles based on an internal combustion engine (ICE) have embedded emissions. These embedded emissions vary, depending to a large part on where the car is produced, and the source of the energy.

There may be extra emissions involved for the materials and fabrication of lithium-ion batteries; on the other hand, there is no internal combustion engine to produce. If there are extra emissions from the production of electric vehicles, then these are easily offset by the reduced emissions while driving.

2 Operational carbon emissions when driving cars

Operational emissions are generated during the operation of an asset. In the case of a coal-fired power plant, for instance, operational carbon emissions are mostly carbon dioxide, and to a lesser extent nitrous oxide and methane.

In the case of a vehicle with an internal combustion engine (ICE) based on fossil fuels, operational carbon emissions are what come out of the tailpipe. Like with a coal-fired power plant, greenhouse gas emissions are mostly carbon dioxide, and to a lesser extent nitrous oxide and methane. However, emissions from ICE cars also include Nitrogen oxides (NOx), Particulate Matter (PM10) and Carbon Monoxide (CO) which cause air pollution.

In the case of an electric vehicle, no emissions are coming out of the tailpipe – EVs don’t even have tailpipes! This means that from a carbon accounting perspective, there are no Scope 1 emissions.

However, just like ICE cars, the electric vehicle must be supplied with energy in order to run. The amount of operational carbon emissions depends on the source of the energy going into the electric vehicle.

The source of the electricity determines how cleanly your electric vehicles run

If your electric vehicles are charged from the grid, it depends on the ‘greenness’ of the grid as to how cleanly your cars are powered. In a country (or a state) that is mostly supplied from renewables, the energy source is cleaner than if the electricity is produced by burning coal and natural gas.

For instance, an electric car charged in Costa Rica or Iceland, where practically all electricity is being produced from renewables, is emissions-free from a Scope 2 perspective. In Australia, where about 80% of our electricity comes from fossil fuel sources, it is not as clean to run your electric vehicle.

Having said that, if you charge your car in the Australian Capital Territory, Tasmania or South Australia, your cars will run very cleanly.

For more information on greening your EV’s electricity use, please read part 3 of this blog post series.

3 End-of-life carbon emissions

Every asset has its lifetime, and there are emissions associated when a car ends up being scrap metal. Greenhouse gas emissions at the end of life are similar between ICE cars and EVs, with the only difference being the EV battery.

Batteries are troublesome from an environmental perspective, but as technology progresses, EV batteries will last longer. It is also possible to recycle EV batteries and use them for stationary purposes, like battery storage in a home, or indeed for EV charging stations.

An example of an Australia-based company that can recycle lithium batteries is Envirostream. They are able to recycle over 98% of the product and are branching out to PV recycling.

What you need to consider when claiming zero emissions for your electric vehicles

Stay tuned, for in our next blog post we will look at considerations when making claims around the ‘greenness’ of electric vehicles.

100% Renewables are experts in energy and carbon strategies. If you need help with your strategy, please contact Barbara or Patrick.

Feel free to use an excerpt of this blog on your own site, newsletter, blog, etc. Just send us a copy or link and include the following text at the end of the excerpt: “This content is reprinted from 100% Renewables Pty Ltd’s blog.