illustrations of carbon footprint

The carbon footprint of electric cars 

All-electric cars don't emit particulates or CO2 when driving. This is probably their most obvious benefit over combustion engines. But electric cars have a better carbon footprint over their entire lifetime, not just when they are being driven. (Image: Adobe Stock)

All-electric cars don't emit particulates or CO2 when driving. This is probably their most obvious benefit over combustion engines. But electric cars have a better carbon footprint over their entire lifetime, not just when they are being driven. (Image: Adobe Stock)

Find out more about the carbon footprint of electric cars here:

  • Electric cars have a 50 to 80% better carbon footprint than petrol cars.
  • But their advantage over combustion engines increases the more they are driven.
  • The owners of electric cars can actively improve their carbon footprint by charging their vehicles with green electricity.
  • Electric mobility is therefore making an important contribution to protecting our climate.

Studies have shown that electric cars have a superior carbon footprint

All-electric cars are climate-conscious, as they do not emit greenhouse gases that are harmful to the climate when driving. In the short term, electric vehicles,Opens an external link therefore, help to improve the air quality and quality of life in towns and cities – for many drivers, this is the best reason for switching to electric mobility. And in the long term, they also help to combat climate change. But CO2-free driving is just one side of the coin. As with combustion engines, waste materials and greenhouse gases are generated before the car even hits the road: throughout every process in production, logistics, usage and disposal.

However, the good news is that if you look at the entire lifetime of a vehicle, electric cars still have a better carbon footprint than petrol cars. This is demonstrated by recent studies on electric mobility , including a study conducted by the Eindhoven University of Technology in 2020. The study compares the life-long greenhouse gas emissions of electric cars and vehicles with petrol or diesel engines and confirms that electric vehicles have the potential to solve the problem of CO2 emissions from road traffic. The study by IFEU (Institute for Energy and Environmental Research Heidelberg) entitled "Carbon footprint of electric cars", conducted on behalf of the Agora Verkehrswende transport consultancy, reached a similar result. Their conclusion: "In all cases examined, electric cars have lower lifetime climate impacts than those with internal combustion engines."

An electric vehicle registered as a new car in 2025 will generate 32% fewer CO2 emissions over its lifetime than a modern diesel car. The figure is even higher, at 40% , when you compare electric cars with petrol cars. This is backed up by calculations carried out by the Federal Environment Agency and published in 2019.

The carbon footprint improves the more the electric car is driven

A vehicle's carbon footprint starts long before the new owner sets out on their first trip. The greatest benefits of electric cars are evident when they are in use. As all-electric vehicles do not emit exhaust gases when they are driven, their carbon footprint increasingly shifts in their favour compared to petrol or diesel cars. This means that the more an electric car is driven, the better its carbon footprint is in a direct comparison.

Electric cars are also significantly more energy-efficient to drive than, say, a diesel car: electric cars can travel three to four times further with the same amount of energy. However, the edge that electric cars have during their use phase can be extended further still: the owners of an electric car can influence certain factors to further improve the carbon footprint of their vehicle.

turbine and solar panel
Owners who charge their car with electricity from renewable energy sources, or even from their own photovoltaic system, can considerably improve their car's carbon footprint. (Image: Adobe Stock)

Improved carbon footprint with electricity from renewable energy sources

The carbon footprintOpens an external link of an electric vehicle essentially depends on the electricity mix used to produce the electric car and subsequently charge it – whether on the road at a public charging station, or home. The more electricity that comes from renewable energy sources, the better. This also applies to the charging station at your homeOpens an external link: it uses the same mix of energy as your household appliances. So, if an electric car is charged with green electricity not only is it emission-free to drive, but it also generates significantly fewer climate-harming carbon dioxide emissions during its use phase (when chargingOpens an external link). Therefore, if you buy green electricity in your home or produce it yourself with a photovoltaic system, you will be actively helping your electric car or plug-in hybrid to gain a further advantage over cars powered by diesel, petrol or even synthetic fuels.

The carbon footprint of electric mobility will continue to improve as the percentage of electricity generated by renewable energy sources increases during the 'energy revolution', and so the electricity mix will contain less CO2 and be greener. No other energy source is as decarbonised as electricity is today, and no other energy source has such a mapped route ahead to further decarbonisation. This shows the long-term potential of electric mobility in helping to combat climate change.

The influence of the battery on the carbon footprint

Electric carsOpens an external link are very energy efficient. However, how CO2-neutral they also depend on the capacity of the battery fitted. The smaller the battery, the better the carbon footprint of the vehicle: fewer emissions are produced in production and fewer sometimes rare raw materials are needed. The heavier weight of a larger battery also leads to higher energy consumption when the car is driven. The size of the battery installed in the electric car should therefore also match the owner's usage behaviour: a second car, which may only be used to travel shorter distances, may only require a smaller battery, for instance, a 45 kWh battery. It will therefore start its life with a considerably smaller 'climate backpack' than a vehicle with a 77-kilowatt-hour battery.


How a 'climate backpack' is produced

An electric car has a 'climate backpack' because, in its lifecycle, relatively high levels of CO2 emissions are generated in production compared to a vehicle with a combustion engine. The mean estimation of the University of Eindhoven is 75 kg of CO2 per kilowatt-hour of power (calculated in CO2 equivalents for the sake of comparability). According to some calculations, diesel accounts for about just half of these emissions. Diesel and petrol engines also carry a small 'backpack', because greenhouse gases are also produced in their production. But don't forget, the production of fuels from fossil energy sources and synthetic fuels also causes emissions. They also need to be included in the end-to-end 'well-to-tank' calculation, that is from the source to the tank of the vehicle. However, these fuels produce even more emissions when they are burned.

Almost half of the carbon emissions of an electric vehicle's life are generated in the production of the batteries, whether they are lithium-ion or electric car batteries with other cell chemistry. In other words, batteries are the critical factor in an electric vehicle's carbon footprint.

However, other processes in the supply chain also need energy – not just the battery. Among other things, this applies to the production of raw materials, such as the expensive extraction of rare metals. The production of cathodes and graphite for the anode also have a significant impact on the carbon footprint. In various studies, calculations assume that almost half the CO2 emissions of the entire lifecycle of an electric vehicle are generated in battery production and the expensive extraction of the raw materials need for it. As well as potential savings in the battery supply chain, manufacturers, such as Volkswagen, are also examining measures for other hotspots, such as steel or aluminium, and offsetting unavoidable emissions with climate protection projects.

Volkswagen is systematically reducing the CO2 emissions in its production with energy efficiency and the use of green electricity. The carbon dioxide that still cannot be avoided in the production and supply process today is offset – with certified climate protection projects in the Indonesian rainforest, for example. This is how Volkswagen, even today, can supply ID. modelsOpens an external link carbon-neutrally to customers without a 'climate backpack'.

Recycling / Second Life

The carbon footprint is likely to shift even more in favour of electric vehicles in future, especially when you consider the issues of recycling and second life. Today, high-voltage batteries are already being recycled to recover the raw materials in them, including cobalt, nickel, copper and lithium, so that they can be produced in a more climate-neutral and sustainable manner. The EU Commission has recently set out sustainability criteria for the disposal of batteriesOpens an external link. Batteries can also be used for stationary use (second life), for instance as energy storage in the home. Here, too, there is still plenty of potential in the coming years for further reducing the 'climate backpack' of electric mobility and its contribution to the energy revolution.

So, the groundwork has been laid for the switch to electric mobility. Curious about our models? Use our Online ConfiguratorOpens an external link to build put together your ideal car to your specification.