In a recent study conducted by Rystad Energy, battery electric vehicles (BEVs) have emerged as the frontrunners in the quest to reduce emissions within the transportation sector. Despite initial concerns about emissions during the manufacturing process and continued reliance on fossil fuels in some regions, the long-term environmental advantages of adopting BEVs are undeniable.
Rystad Energy’s comprehensive analysis reveals that BEVs emit at most half the carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) of diesel or gasoline cars over their entire lifecycle, regardless of the country in which they are used. Even in nations where fossil fuels still dominate the power grid, BEVs emit approximately 50% less CO2e than traditional internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. As renewable energy sources progressively replace coal and gas-fired generation, emissions tied to BEV operations could decline by an astonishing 86%.
The Rystad Energy study takes into account every phase of BEV and ICE vehicle emissions, encompassing manufacturing processes, vehicle operation, maintenance, fuel and electricity-related emissions, and battery production for BEVs. While recognizing the social and humanitarian aspects associated with EV manufacturing, battery production, and mining, this research solely focuses on comparing emissions between battery electric and traditional fuel vehicles.
Breaking down the numbers, the research demonstrates that, based on China’s current power generation mix, BEVs emit approximately 39 tonnes of CO2e, in stark contrast to nearly 85 tonnes emitted by ICE vehicles. In the United States, the gap is even more pronounced, with BEVs emitting only 42 tonnes of CO2e throughout their lifespan, 58% less than their gasoline or diesel counterparts that emit over 100 tonnes. It’s crucial to note that emissions linked to the extraction, refining, and burning of fossil fuels contribute to about 90% of all ICE emissions. The emissions profile of a battery-powered vehicle is intricately tied to its electricity consumption and the source of that electricity.
Abhishek Murali, Senior Clean Tech Analyst at Rystad Energy, stated, “Overall, battery electric vehicles are clearly the right technology to reduce emissions in the transportation sector. Switching to a BEV will reduce long-term emissions despite a larger environmental impact at the beginning of the vehicle’s life. Contrary to some claims, electric car adoption is not a fool’s errand; it will slash emissions in the long run and accelerate the energy transition.”
The Rystad Energy study focused on five countries – China, the United States, India, Germany, and France – due to their diverse transportation characteristics, including driving patterns, predominant vehicle types, and varying power sources. Germany and France were selected to represent the European market and assess different power mixes while keeping other factors relatively consistent. To ensure accuracy, the research used a base case power generation forecast for each country, reflecting the evolving nature of electricity generation and its impact on BEV emissions. The analysis assumes a vehicle lifespan of 18 years, after which most vehicles are retired.
Annual driving distances vary significantly by country, with the United States leading the way with an average of approximately 23,000 kilometers (km) driven per year, compared to 19,000 km in China and approximately 13,500 km in Germany, France, and India. The Rystad Energy study used historical data to forecast emissions over the next 18 years, with mileage in the US, China, and Europe expected to decrease by about 1% annually based on official driving statistics and surveys. In contrast, India is predicted to see a 0.5% annual increase in driving distance as the country is still in the midst of its motorization phase.
The Role of the Power Mix
A country’s power generation mix plays a pivotal role in determining how rapidly emissions reduction can be achieved through BEV adoption. While ICE vehicles become progressively more emissions-intensive as they age, BEVs become less polluting over time as power generation becomes greener. In the United States, for example, the research predicts that, in the base case scenario for the development of the power grid, battery-powered cars will emit only 14% of the emissions equivalent to gasoline or diesel cars by 2041.
Notably, stark differences can be observed in regions with otherwise similar conditions. Comparing Germany and France, the primary deviation lies in the emissions intensity of their power grids. France, dominated by nuclear power, has an approximately 84% lower carbon intensity compared to Germany, which heavily relies on gas generation. Consequently, charging an electric vehicle in France results in emissions of approximately 70% lower, translating to around 37% lower lifecycle emissions.
A similar comparison for a coal-heavy power mix, as seen in India, results in 43% lower lifecycle emissions. Overall, adopting BEVs, even in a status quo power mix future, proves to be environmentally beneficial, especially in countries with high annual mileage, such as the United States.
The Potential for CO2 Reduction
Utilizing the power-mix analysis, the Rystad Energy study estimates the volume of emissions that can be avoided through BEV sales, assuming similar driving patterns and model availability. The displacement factor varies by country, influenced by driving habits and BEV availability. For instance, China boasts low annual average mileage and widespread BEV model availability, leading to an almost 1:1 emissions displacement factor. In the United States, however, BEV adoption varies widely from state to state, resulting in an estimated national average displacement factor of 0.6. European countries exhibit displacement factors ranging from 0.8 to 1.1.
To illustrate the impact of these factors, consider that in 2022, China witnessed the sale of 5 million passenger BEVs alongside 17 million ICE cars. Assuming each BEV emits 39 tonnes of CO2e during its lifetime and each ICE emits 85 tonnes of CO2e, the total emissions from ICE sales would reach 1.4 gigatonnes of CO2e, while BEVs sold would contribute approximately 200 million tonnes of CO2e. However, if these 5 million BEVs had been ICE vehicles, emissions would have exceeded 430 million tonnes CO2e. Consequently, BEVs result in a lifecycle emissions reduction of 230 million tonnes of CO2e, equivalent to nearly 14% of total passenger car emissions. A similar analysis for the United States shows a reduction of 25 million tonnes CO2e.