CO2 ilustration

The carbon footprint of electric cars

How climate-friendly are electric cars? What is their carbon footprint? Just a couple of the questions commonly asked by people considering an electric vehicle. Studies show that electric cars have better carbon and environmental footprint than internal combustion engine vehicles when their entire life cycle is considered. 

How climate-friendly are electric cars? What is their carbon footprint? Just a couple of the questions commonly asked by people considering an electric vehicle. Studies show that electric cars have better carbon and environmental footprint than internal combustion engine vehicles when their entire life cycle is considered. 

Find out all this and more about an electric car’s carbon footprint here:

  • A current study calculates the carbon footprint of an electric car as being between 50 and 80% better than that of a combustion engine vehicle.
  • Their benefits over combustion engines continue to grow the more they are driven.
  • Drivers who charge with green energy further improve the carbon footprint of their electric cars.
  • Starting with a good carbon footprint: Volkswagen presents the production-series ID. CO2-neutral models.

Electric cars can help solve the problem of CO2 emissions 

Taking the entire life cycle of an electric car into account, that is from raw material extraction to recycling (cradle-to-grave), electric cars have a 50 to 80% better carbon footprint than comparable cars powered by petrol or diesel engines. This result is supported by a 2020 study by the Technical University of Eindhoven. According to this study, even “[...] the ‘insoluble’ problem of CO2 emissions from road traffic can be solved by the introduction of electric vehicles”.  The ID.3 and ID.4 are already being delivered as climate-neutral models. Volkswagen is systematically reducing CO2 emissions in its production and compensating for unavoidable emissions through certified climate protection projects, among a tranche of other measures.

Electric vehicles are therefore already producing less than half the greenhouse gases of their fossil fuel-powered counterparts. This is backed up by current calculations published in the Eindhoven study. If production and driving were powered by renewable energy sources in future, this would lead to a minimum of ten times lower emissions than could be achieved with combustion engine cars. Older studies, such as the “Sweden study” from 2017 or an IFO study from 2019, attest to several shortcomings. They state, among other things, that the assumptions about greenhouse gas emissions in battery production are too high and the battery life is too low. The calculations were also made using ideal figures for diesel and petrol engines.

To cite one example: in the more recent calculations in the Eindhoven study, the Volkswagen eGolf has a CO2 equivalent of 78 g per kilometre, while the “Toyota Prius 1.8-litre 2020” has more than twice the carbon equivalent at 168 g. According to the analysis, the electric model would have compensated for the additional burden caused by its battery production after 28,000 kilometres. The CO2 equivalent is a unit of measurement used to convert the emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases to compare their impact on the climate. The feel-good factor associated with this is plain to see – heavily polluted city centres will be a thing of the past if electric cars become prevalent. This means better air for everyone, even for joggers at traffic lights, and so a better quality of life. 

The factors influencing the carbon footprint of an electric car

Electric cars are energy efficient. They can travel three to four times as far as a combustion engine car powered by conventional diesel or even e-fuels on the same amount of energy. However, the efficiency of e‑mobility is just one element of a positive carbon footprint. It depends on several factors. CO2 emissions can be produced at every stage of a vehicle's production chain – from the manufacture of the individual components and production to logistics, driving and recycling. Therefore, the product life cycle needs to be viewed end to end to determine its carbon footprint. And Volkswagen is adjusting at every stage of this cycle.

Production vs. usage

The CO2 emissions from raw material extraction and manufacture are the single biggest driver of an electric car’s carbon footprint. This is because the production of an electric car requires more energy than the production of a combustion engine-powered vehicle. This is mainly due to the energy-intensive production of the battery, that is lithium-ion batteries. This is the “eco-baggage” that electric vehicles must carry with them for a short while due to their increased production complexity. The good news is that this energy consumption is compensated for over the long term once the car is in use. Electric cars do not emit CO2 or other greenhouse gases when they are driven, making them CO2-free to drive unlike diesel or petrol-driven vehicles. Moreover, their footprint improves with every kilometre driven and over time. Furthermore, calculations often do not take sufficient account of the “well-to-tank” (oil source to vehicle tank) CO2 emissions generated during fuel production– and in the production of diesel or petrol vehicles themselves.

A person’s overall carbon footprint is lower if they charge using their wallbox at home and green electricity, for instance with an ID.Charger3 and Volkswagen Naturstrom power.

The impact of the electricity mix on the CO2 calculation

But what exactly is the carbon footprint of an electric vehicle? This question is not easy to answer as its carbon footprint depends on several factors. And these factors are not easy to calculate either. Influencing factors range from the cell chemistry used and the mix of electricity at the production site to the battery capacity, electricity mix at the charging station, driving and recycling.

Battery production site: An electricity mix with a high proportion of electricity from fossil fuels results in a poorer carbon footprint. The carbon footprint of the electric car battery is improved if it is manufactured with renewable electricity. Volkswagen has the batteries for the ID. series produced in Poland, solely using green electricity.

The potential savings when the car is driven also depend on the electricity used to charge the electric vehicle. The origin of the electricity also plays a key role here, regardless of whether you are charging out and about at a public charging station or home. A home wallbox uses the same mix of energy as your household appliances do. So, if you use eco-friendly energy in the home, you can make an active contribution to reducing your eco-baggage and increasing your 'edge' over diesel and petrol vehicles. That is why Volkswagen is offering modern electricity based on renewable energy sources with its Volkswagen Naturstrom power. It is a way for electric vehicle drivers, or plug-in hybrid drivers, to reduce their carbon footprints in all areas of their life. As the proportion of electricity from renewable energy sources is set to continue to rise as part of countries' energy transition, the carbon footprint is likely to continue to improve at a similar rate.

The influence of battery capacity and mileage

The capacity of the built-in battery plays an equally key role in calculating the CO2 footprint of an electric car. In short, the larger the battery, the worse its carbon footprint. More emissions are generated in the production of a larger battery. This factor is also due to the higher demand for potentially scarce raw materials. It also leads to extra weight and also greater energy consumption during the driving phase. When making a purchase and selecting the correct battery size, potential buyers therefore also need to consider their future planned usage. A smaller, lighter battery gives you less eco-baggage overall if the electric car is to be used as a second car or only as a run-around.

A large proportion of the CO2 emissions of an electric car are generated from the production of the battery. By contrast, it is entirely CO2-free when driven. High mileage is therefore one of the key factors in terms of greenhouse gas emissions – the longer the battery runs, the better the rate of payback of the electric vehicle in this regard. Volkswagen guarantees buyers of brand-new electric vehicles an eight-year guarantee (or up to 160,000 kilometres, whichever comes first) that the usable capacity of the battery will not fall below 70 percent if used correctly. This mileage goes beyond the figures given in the IFO Institute study.

 The researchers in this study compared vehicles, including an electric car and a diesel car.

If the topics of recycling and disposal are included, the ratio is further improved – especially if the batteries then go on to have a stationary use (second life), say in a house.

Find out more about the Volkswagen guarantee and how you can help to maintain the condition and the usable capacity of your battery with the right care in the article entitled “High voltage battery: guarantee and care”.