In all of this, the electric car (EV) has become a bit of a "green" poster boy when it comes to championing this particular cause. It's seen as the single most effective way to decarbonise and propel us all into a new green nirvana - finally freed from all the pollutants of old.

If Government plans go ahead, EVs will be the only type of new car that we can buy after 2035. Even the likes of Rolls-Royce are in on the EV act. They have to be because the sale of petrol and diesel cars will soon be consigned to the history books. Hybrids will be the last bastion of fossil fuel-driven cars. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak recently announced that Tata Motors will invest four billion pounds in building a state-of-the-art electric car battery plant in Bridgwater, Somerset. These batteries will power future fleets of EVs.

The question is, are the new-fangled electric cars really as environmentally benign as we are led to believe?

Of course, purely electric cars don't have filthy exhaust pipes that belch out toxic gasses as they're driven. But that doesn't make them genuinely zero-emission vehicles as they're often perceived to be. So, where are the EVs environmental benefits and where do they fall short when it comes to those green credentials?


Truth is, an electric car is only as clean as the electricity that's produced to charge it. In 2022, the UK still produced over 40% of its electricity output from fossil fuels. Another 11% came from something called 'thermal renewables'. That means power stations that burn wood chips made from chopping up forests (mostly in the USA). Whilst Governments like to call this 'zero carbon' energy, the truth is, that wood-chip power stations release massive quantities of carbon dioxide because they are (by their very nature) actually burning something. As for genuine renewables such as solar, wind and hydro? Well, they accounted for just 30% of the electricity generated by the UK in 2022.

So. Governments clearly have their work cut out to meet that 2035 deadline for eliminating fossil fuels from powering up the national grid. The problem is, we're nowhere near solving the problem of intermittent power generation. That is, what happens when the sun isn't shining and the wind isn't blowing? All the possible solutions such as hydrogen production or massive-scale battery storage are incredibly expensive. For now, driving an EV simply passes the buck when it comes to carbon emissions. Rather than the carbon coming out of our exhaust pipes, it comes out of power station chimneys instead. So, overall, there's little benefit to the environment as a whole.

Even the process of making an electric car generates 40 per cent more carbon emissions than manufacturing diesel or petrol cars. EV batteries are composed of rare metals that have to be mined in huge quantities. Manufacturing emissions make up a large part of any vehicle's so-called 'whole-life' emissions. So, on balance, electric cars look suddenly look significantly less environmentally friendly than they might first appear.


There have been various attempts to guesstimate the 'whole-life' emissions of electric cars and to answer this fundamental question: How far do you actually have to drive before an electric car can truly be said to have lower emissions over its useful life than a petrol or diesel equivalent?

The Norwegians seem to have it sussed because 96% of their electricity is produced from renewable hydropower. That means, an EV in Norway only needs to be driven 8,500 miles before breaking even on the carbon count. However, in America, where 60% of their electricity is generated using fossil fuels, the odometer reading needs to hit 13,500 miles to reach that break-even point. It makes for even more stark reading when we look at places like Poland or China who still have lots of coal-fed power stations. In these countries, the odometer needs to hit a staggering 79,000 miles before an EV begins to earn its green Blue Peter badge.

It's not all about carbon emissions. Electric cars have a limited range which often means that they are used as runabouts in big towns and cities. Because they rack up relatively small mileages, these towny EVs typically take a much longer time to reach their 'whole-life' emissions milestone, unlike a mile-munching modern diesel car. This means that EVs release more particulates in urban environments.

City pollution involves lots of these particulates which can penetrate deep into people's lungs. This type of pollution has been linked to higher instances of heart disease. Cleaner fossil-fuelled cars mean that particulate pollution has greatly reduced over the past 50 years. In fact, modern petrol engines have become so efficient that they only account for a tiny proportion of overall particulate pollution. The vast majority of harmful particles come from vehicle tyres, brakes and clutches.

Electric cars have a system known as regenerative braking which puts the motor into reverse thus reducing the use of brake pads. However, EVs are much heavier than their petrol equivalents which means more tyre wear and therefore more particulates.

Of course, there's the issue of rare-metal mining. A typical EV battery contains 35kg of manganese, 8 kg of lithium and up to 12 kg of cobalt. There are particular concerns about cobalt because 70% of it comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The mines are operated by casually employed labourers who are given very few rights and there's little by way of any safety legislation. The worst of it is that many of the miners are children.

So where lies the answer?

Of course, EVs can certainly help reduce carbon emissions although, as we've seen, they often don't. Even those urban runabouts we mentioned earlier are responsible for more carbon emissions than their petrol equivalents. So, even if we look at the best possible scenarios, EVs are nowhere near being zero-carbon and can't be until the electricity grid has been fully decarbonised. We also need to decarbonise plastics and steel production as well as mining industries. Sadly all that is a pretty long way off.

In summary, by 2035, we will all have to buy electric if we want to buy a brand-new car. By then, there's little chance that an all-electric car will provide zero-carbon transportation. Curiously, governments continue to formulate policy as though EVs are the holy grail of environmentalism. It seems to me that adhering to irrational targets succeed only to impoverish the very poorest people and at the end of it all, we won't be doing enough to save the planet.

By the same token - I suppose it's a start. But producing millions of any type of car or any type of consumables involves gobbling up a whole lot of energy which isn't particularly "green" as things stand.


Douglas Hughes is a UK-based writer producing general interest articles ranging from travel pieces to classic motoring. 

Douglas Hughes