Car tech: Study emphases whole-life environmental costs

Lexus CT 200hHybrids and electric vehicles have a greater environmental impact than conventional cars, but are still greener overall. Stuart Milne reports.

A new study by the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership has recognised the increased carbon emissions during production of electric vehicles (EV) and hybrids, but says their lower operating emissions means they’re still greener overall.

The report, commissioned for Ricardo, highlights the increasing importance of accounting for whole-life carbon emissions to compare low carbon vehicles. To date, critics have cited often modest CO2 savings while driving low carbon vehicle fails to off-set the emissions for production and disposal.

LowCVP found that some of the CO2 savings during the use of low carbon vehicles is offset by increased emissions created during their production, and to a lesser extent disposal. However, overall electric and hybrid vehicles still have lower carbon footprints than normal cars.

According to LowCVP’s figures, a typical medium sized family car will create around 24 tonnes of CO2 during its life cycle, while an EV will produce around 18 tonnes over its life. For a battery EV, 46% of its total carbon footprint is generated at the factory, before it has travelled a single mile.

The findings place an onus on manufacturers to find ways of reducing the carbon footprint of building EVs and hybrids. Toyota has recently announced solar panels will power the Auris hybrid production facility, and Nissan has installed wind generators at its LEAF plant.

It also found lifecycle carbon emissions for mid-sized petrol and diesel vehicles covering a similar lifetime mileage are almost identical, with the improved efficiency of diesel engines offset by high production emissions. Worryingly, some regulations designed to improve recyclability, safety or reduce air pollution can increase carbon emissions in production or use.

As a wider range of alternatively powered vehicles enter the market, it will be essential to compare vehicles on a level playing field to offer information on a vehicles’ whole-life carbon impact.

But before a scheme such as this is implemented, there are other barriers to overcome. Another recent study found a lack of infrastructure is hampering the adoption of electric vehicles. It found that areas such as the North East have more appetite for EVs due to the investment in charging stations.

The regional development agency, One North East is helping to stimulate consumer awareness, confidence and interest in EVs, with 5% of motorists in the area saying they would consider an electric car. That compares well with a UK average of just 2%, but could be inflated by local production of the Nissan LEAF.

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