London, England – Electric and hybrid cars create more carbon emissions when they’re being built but are still “greener” than conventional vehicles overall, according to a new British report.

The study found that some of the CO2 savings made while low-carbon vehicles are being driven is offset by increased emissions created during their production, and also, to a lesser extent, at the end of their life when they are recycled. However, they still have lower carbon footprints than regular cars.

The study gave the example of a typical midsized car that will create around 24 tonnes of CO2 during its life cycle. An electric vehicle will produce around 18 tonnes over its life. For a battery-powered vehicle, 46 per cent of its total carbon footprint is generated at the factory before it travels at all.

“This work dispels the myth that low-carbon vehicles simply displace emissions from the exhaust to other sources,” said Greg Archer, managing director of LowCVP, which organizes stakeholders in low-carbon futures. “However, it does highlight the need to look at reducing carbon emissions from vehicles throughout their life cycle. The automotive industry is already taking positive steps to address this issue. The recent announcement by Toyota of a solar array to provide electricity to power the hybrid Auris production facility and wind power at the Nissan Leaf plant are excellent examples of this.”

For a standard midsize gasoline-powered vehicle, much of the embedded carbon in production is in its steel, which highlights the importance of deploying low-weight, low-carbon alternatives to current steel in the ultra-low carbon vehicles of the future. A similar electric vehicle will have more embedded carbon due to its battery. Reducing carbon in both the energy supply and in the production of batteries will be essential for electric vehicles to deliver ultra-low carbon lifetime emissions.

The company said that as a wide range of electric, biofuel and potentially hydrogen vehicles compete with gasoline and diesel models in the future, it will become essential to compare vehicles on a whole-life carbon basis. The study shows both the complexity and the practicality of calculating whole life carbon emissions, and highlights the need to develop a standard methodology acceptable to vehicle manufacturers.

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