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ifeu study: Climate footprint of combustion engines far worse than that of electric cars

On behalf of the Federal Environment Agency, the ifeu researchers calculated the environmental impact generated by the three vehicle types with different drive systems over the entire life cycle of the vehicles – from production to use and disposal. The study considered and compared combustion engines with petrol, diesel or natural gas, hydrogen vehicles with fuel cells, battery electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids. The calculation was based on the assumption that fossil fuels would gradually be replaced by e-fuels from renewable electricity sources and that electric vehicles would be charged using the steadily improving German electricity mix.

The result: electric vehicles, which already have the lowest impact on the climate today, also perform better than combustion engines in the long term in other impact categories such as particulate matter pollution, acidification and ozone depletion. However, the remaining share of coal-fired electricity in the power mix still has a negative impact on the environmental impact of electric vehicles and worsens their balance in these impact categories.

With its comprehensive technical modeling and calculations based on various scenarios up to the year 2050, the new ifeu study is currently the most comprehensive study on the topic of ‘Alternative drives and their environmental impact’. The researchers assume that the global economy will be largely climate-neutral from 2050. This will make all drive types significantly more climate-friendly in the future than today and reduce GHG emissions of all vehicle types by at least 95 percent compared to today. However, even in this scenario, battery-powered electric vehicles would require significantly lower amounts of renewable energy than vehicles powered by expensively produced electricity-based synthetic fuels (e-fuels). A car (built in 2030) would have to run on between 70-90 percent fully renewable e-fuels over its entire service life to achieve the same climate impact as a battery electric vehicle.

Vehicle batteries not as bad as their reputation

The new study also looked at the environmental footprint of vehicle batteries. The ifeu researchers analyzed the production, use, continued use and disposal of these batteries. And come to the conclusion that their balance is not as bad as their reputation: over their entire life cycle, batteries are responsible for only 15 to 20 percent of the climate impact of an electric vehicle. At the same time, there is still great potential to further improve the eco-balance of batteries. Improvements in the sustainability of supply chains and production processes as well as in battery technologies and a sharp drop in the proportion of fossil energy used in production will massively reduce the currently still high GHG emissions of batteries. As the study also shows, this also applies to other components such as fuel cells and the infrastructure of overhead line trucks.

The new ifeu study confirms the course already taken by large parts of the economy and politics to rely primarily on battery electric drives in transportation. It is true that hydrogen and synthetic fuels also have the potential to significantly improve the environmental footprint of vehicles – if the electricity required for their production is generated largely without fossil fuels in the future. However, it is to be expected that e-fuels will be in demand primarily in energy-intensive industrial sectors as well as in shipping and aviation. It will be an enormous challenge for the energy market to make e-fuels available for road transportation at acceptable prices. It will be possible to make the national electricity mix fossil-free much more quickly in the foreseeable future. And battery-powered vehicles are the best way to take advantage of this development. According to the study, the greenhouse gas-neutral transport of the future can be achieved most quickly with electric vehicles.

You can also read this article in the current eMove360° magazine in german language. Order a free PDF download or print version in the eMove360° shop.

04.07.2024   |  

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