How green are electric vehicles?

Are hybrid or electric vehicles really more environmentally friendly than conventionally powered cars?

  • Green NCAP findings challenge the assumptions
  • Greenhouse gas emissions
  • Primary energy demand
  • What’s the answer?

Green NCAP findings challenge the assumptions

As potential buyers, we are faced with a multitude of choices when we purchase a new vehicle, but with the increasing cost of fuel and greater awareness of the environment, as sales figures across Europe confirm, many of us are choosing to ‘go green’ and ‘go electric’. However, is it really as simple as that?

Maybe not, as findings from Green NCAP, an offshoot of the European New Car Assessment Programme (Euro NCAP), have cast doubt on the assumption that just because it’s electric, it must be kinder to the environment.

According to its website - - to understand the true ecological impact and sustainability of a car, it must be viewed in the context of its whole life cycle. This means that all processes and flows of resources and energy associated with the car’s production, usage, and recycling at the end of its life must be considered.

Life Cycle Assessment, or LCA, is the method that estimates these individual contributions to predict the car’s environmental impact over its entire lifetime “from cradle to grave”. Therefore, Green NCAP’s LCA focuses on two key measures: greenhouse gas emissions and primary energy demand.

Greenhouse gas emissions

Greenhouse gases contribute to the greenhouse effect, so the sum of the gas emissions, produced in the different phases of a vehicle’s lifecycle, is an important indicator of the vehicle’s impact on global warming. The greenhouse gases Green NCAP LCA investigated were carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O), expressed as emitted CO2 equivalent.

Primary energy demand

The primary energy demand (PED) is equally important because energy is scarce and valuable and should be utilised efficiently. The required primary energy, which must be extracted from one or multiple non-renewable (fossil) or renewable sources (e.g. wind, solar or hydropower), was expressed in kWh or MWh.

What’s the answer?

The Green NCAP LCA analysis assumed a vehicle lifetime of 16 years and a driven mileage of 240,000 km and the calculations were based on current forecasts about the changing average energy mix of the 27 European Union member states and the United Kingdom.

In a 61 vehicle analysis in 2021 - - the results threw up a some surprises, because although perhaps somewhat predictably, the all-electric Fiat 500 produced the lowest average lifetime greenhouse gas emissions and was fourth in the overall average PED standings, the 2.0-litre diesel Škoda Octavia estate had the lowest average PED and was in fifth place on average lifetime greenhouse gas emissions!

What these findings reveal is that nothing is as straightforward as simply comparing the cost to fill-up or recharge over the distance you can travel, or that electric equals zero emissions and petrol/diesel is nothing but. However, what is easier to understand is that irrespective of whether powered by fossil fuel or electricity, the bigger the vehicle, the greater will be its overall environmental impact!

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