With automakers worldwide planning to invest over $1 trillion into EV production, the race toward decarbonizing battery production is on.
Research by the IEA found that most CO2 emission reductions stemming from electrification between 2021 and 2030 will occur within the light-duty vehicles sector. In the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario, electrification should be able to avoid 1 Gigatonne (Gt) of CO2 emissions in 2030.
But there remain questions about the lifetime emissions of EVs compared to internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEVs), specifically regarding emissions from battery production and electricity as a power source.
In this blog, we summarize research discussing ICEV and EV emissions during the production and use phases of EVs and ICEVs. We also explore forward-looking trends on how increased adoption can lead to better technologies and market behavior that reduce production-related emissions.
Manufacturing EVs vs ICEVs: Which releases more emissions?
EVs produce more emissions during manufacturing than ICEVs because of the amount of energy needed to extract and refine materials used to make batteries, like lithium, nickel, cobalt, and aluminum.
Compared to producing an ICEV of the same size, a battery-powered EV (BEV) can release 1.3 to 2 times more GHG emissions.
But these upfront emissions are greatly offset when the vehicles are in use.
Auke Hoekstra, director of energy transition research at the Eindhoven University of Technology, tells the New York Times that there are “no countries in the world where BEVs pollute more than internal combustion vehicles.”
Why? Because EVs can travel further with energy produced by their batteries.
A 2020 paper by Hoekstra also points out that recent strides in technology have made it possible for batteries to last over 500,000 km (a little over 310,000 miles), giving them a longer lifetime, higher energy efficiency, and as a result of that, significantly lower post-production emissions. In contrast, fuel is continuously produced and replenished to power an ICEV throughout the use phase.
Despite the higher emissions during manufacturing, EVs break even with ICEVs in about 1.5 years for sedans, 1.6 years for SUVs, and 1.9 years for pickup trucks. The absence of tailpipe emissions is the biggest difference between EVs and ICEVs.
One study found that BEVs produce between 30 and 40 tons of emissions over the first 150,000 miles, which is more than 50% lower than ICEVs which produce 65 to 90 tons in that same range.
Let’s break those numbers down so they’re a little easier to visualize regarding everyday driving distances. ICEVs release 8,887 grams of carbon dioxide (CO2) per gallon of fuel burned, which is roughly 410 grams of CO2 per mile. In comparison, EVs release only 110 grams of C02 per mile with the average US electricity mix.
EV emissions from electricity as an energy source
Another major concern with EVs is the impact of electricity sources used in battery production and during charging. However, research has shown that the impact of varying the source of electricity used in battery production on overall emissions is minimal.
A hypothetical study of battery production in China found that when upfront EV emissions were increased by 0.5 tons per vehicle, a process powered with 100% solar photovoltaics would reduce emissions by 0.7 tons. This difference has little impact on overall lifetime emissions because battery production only makes up 15% of overall battery pack emissions and an even smaller percentage of full life cycle emissions.
We’ll see the biggest benefits in reducing lifetime EV emissions by equipping high-carbon grids with more reliance on renewable energy sources. 20% of electricity in the US came from renewable energy sources in 2022, primarily hydropower, wind, and solar energy.
More importantly, grids are becoming cleaner every year. In the US, over 80% of new capacity added to the grid in 2021 came from renewable energy sources.
A 30% decrease in grid carbon intensity is enough to reduce EV emissions from battery production by 17%. More importantly, it significantly lowers grid emissions when more energy is used to charge EVs during the use phase.
Looking ahead: Fewer EV emissions, and more renewable energy
As EV adoption increases, we can expect utilities, automakers, and businesses to contribute to further emission reductions from when an EV is manufactured till the end of its lifetime. Here are a few avenues for further emissions reduction from EVs in the coming years:
🍃 Renewable energy
The ICCT reports that as the electricity mix continues to decarbonize in the coming years, we can expect EVs running on renewable energy to have up to 81% lower lifecycle emission production than ICEVs.
EVs don’t just benefit from renewable energy production, they also contribute to it. According to the California ISO, curtailing resources like solar energy is becoming common practice to manage the oversupply in the middle of the day when the sun is brightest. This results in much fewer opportunities for grids to generate carbon-free power.
The state found that enrolling 5 million EVs in managed charging programs in 2025 could reduce renewable energy curtailment by up to 40%. Smart charging apps and DERMS platforms use EV API platforms like Smartcar to actively control EV charging and optimize demand according to the availability of renewable energy sources.
🔋Evolution of batteries
As EV demand and manufacturing investments grow, so will research and development initiatives to improve battery technology.
In the US, battery cell production is estimated to grow more than tenfold, from less than 60 GWh in 2021 to more than 700 GWh by 2030. Emerging Tech Brew reported that automakers and businesses are innovating to optimize production affordability and battery efficiency. Smaller and lighter batteries are one way to make this happen.
For example, research published in 2022 found that solid-state batteries have a higher energy density and hence need an average of 24% fewer materials to manufacture. These energy-dense batteries can decrease production-phase emissions by 24% to 39%.
🛍 The used EV market
EVs have lower maintenance costs, more advanced technologies, and longer lifespans. Buying a used EV not only opens the door for more affordable ownership, but it also directly reduces emissions from manufacturing new EVs to keep up with growing demand.
Recurrent is a battery report software that helps EV buyers and dealerships understand an EVs true range as the battery ages and informs decisions when purchasing used EVs. According to their research, the used EV market in the US has tripled in size in the last year and a half. The prices of used EVs have also dropped 17% from their peak in July 2022.
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