EVs might not be as eco-friendly as manufacturers make you believe

A recent study by Polestar sheds new light upon the real sustainability of electric vehicles. And the news is not great.

34w ago

Do you remember Polestar? They used to tune Volvos, but now they manufacture luxury electric cars with tons of performance and even more features. Recently (about a month ago, I'm not the quickest guy out there), they've made a few headlines by pledging to be transparent about sustainability of their EVs and releasing the data about the carbon footprint of their cars compared to petrol alternatives. And they're inviting other manufacturers to do the same.

What's all the fuss about?

Basically, it's about this document. In it, Polestar compares carbon footprints of their electric 2 model to petrol-driven Volvo XC40. In essence, they assessed how much greenhouse gases will each car produce over its lifetime, both in production and usage phase. Emissions of all the gases are presented in a carbon dioxide equivalent, which makes it easier to compare and leaves less room for ambiguity.

Polestar 2 - the troublemaker and a sign of honesty of Polestar

Polestar 2 - the troublemaker and a sign of honesty of Polestar

So what is the truth?

The most important part of the report from the environmental perspective is when will the electric car be more eco-friendly than a petrol alternative. And it all depends on the way the electricity is produced in your region. Powered solely by electricity coming from wind turbines, Polestar 2 will break even with an XC40 after 50,000km (or about 31 thousand miles). Thus, after that point, Polestar 2 will be more eco-friendly than the XC40. However, for the European electricity mix (which is a combination of fuels used for electricity production), this break-even point is at 78,000km (about 48,000 miles), and for global mix after 112,000km (almost 70,000 miles). This contrast sharply with a general narrative of governments, which can be summarized to "petrol bad, electric good".

Volvo XC40 - the one they compared Polestar 2 to. Did you know the XC40 was an European Car of the Year in 2018?

Volvo XC40 - the one they compared Polestar 2 to. Did you know the XC40 was an European Car of the Year in 2018?

What does that mean for you?

In essence, you need to individually assess whether electric car is viable in your region. If you live in the sunny state of California or in the windy Denmark, it is probably a great idea to buy an electric car instead of a petrol-driven one. However, if you live in Poland (like I do) or any other country or region, where majority of electricity is produced from fossil fuels, electric car might not be that eco-friendly. It will still be better for the environment, but the break-even point will be even higher. Thus, it is important to consider one more key factor.

Battery size

Petrol cars have a huge head start in terms of emissions, as battery production requires a handful of precious materials and releases tons of harmful gases into the atmosphere. However, this initial advantage can be decreased by reducing the battery size. For example, if you live in a city and use your car for short, daily commutes, it might be a good idea to buy a plug-in hybrid. They often have a smaller battery pack with about 100km of range, which in most cases should be more than enough for your everyday needs. That way, your car will release less greenhouse gases in the production phase and still maintain major reduction of emissions in the usage phase by driving in electric mode. The advantage of plug-ins might be greater than you think, as you eliminate a lot of engine startups, during which internal combustion engines produce the most emissions.

Volvo V60 T8 - I would go for a plug-in hybrid like this one!

Volvo V60 T8 - I would go for a plug-in hybrid like this one!

The advantages do not end there

Yes, EVs might have a range anxiety and can be unfeasible for long road trips. However, there are many benefits of electric cars from the driver's point of view, which include, but are not limited to: instant power, instant heat, silence, comfort, government grants, lower service costs and a privilege of not wasting your time and money on petrol stations. And lets look at the stats: in the report they've compared the Polestar 2 with the Volvo XC40. They are similar in terms of size, but the Polestar has way more power, which comes instantly from an electric motor, not from a fussy petrol engine. It means that everything will happen faster. And isn't it what petrol-heads really care about?

Questioning the report

I was sceptical about the report, but after studying it for a while, I've realised that my concerns were unjustified. Polestar has considered every possible emissions source I could think of. The fact that production of petrol itself releases greenhouse gases? Check. Emissions associated with fluids inside of a vehicle? Check. Disassembly of the vehicle after the end of its lifecycle? Check. They've considered everything, as they probably had a whole bunch of specialists working on the report. Nonetheless, it has its disadvantages, as it uses a lot of averages, average amount of engine startups, average emissions, average electricity mix. However, it still provides a great insight into a sustainability of the electric vehicles.

Polestar also makes this beauty - a 1 model. Gorgeous!

Polestar also makes this beauty - a 1 model. Gorgeous!

Few final words

To begin with, I respect Polestar for their decision to release the report and become transparent about emissions of their cars. Recent narrative made us believe that EVs are a ultimate solution to our environmental problems, whereas they produce a lot of greenhouse gases as well.

Overall, Polestar 2 is better for the environment than the Volvo XC40 over a certain amount of driven kilometrees. This is all I can say from the aforementioned report directly. If you drive a more economical car over a long distance and you are careful with your throttle (like this guy from Poland, who averaged less than 4 litres per 100 kilometres in a diesel VW Passat), it might turn out that its lifetime emissions will be lower than for an electric car (but they likely won't).

On average, the electric car will most likely be more eco-friendly than a petrol-driven vehicle, but it isn't the best we can do from my perspective. I hope EVs will serve as an intermediary for our switch from internal combustion engines to hydrogen fuels cells. For now, electric cars or plug-in hybrids are a great option for reducing global emissions, especially if you live in a city. But in that case, it might be the best to abandon the car whatsoever and switch to a bicycle or public transport.

I know, it's a touchy subject. Still, I hope you enjoyed the article. If you did, you can leave a like and become a follower. Till next time!

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Comments (3)

  • Totally agree. You can also add to list of things that are never mentioned or discussed cyanide that is used in gold mining. It sits in mine tailings for years and sips into ground. And the worst of all, recycling of used batteries.

      6 months ago
    • From what I've read Polestar tried to be as thorough as possible and considered a whole lifecycle of a vehicle, including a disposal of batteries. But absolutely, mining is a shady subject with loads of unanswered questions, so there are...

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        6 months ago
    • Is it similar to the current BMW plan, i.e. BMW takes back their cars, broken components and body parts and recycle them. Recycling plant is also open to public. Just like their manufacturing facilities.

        6 months ago