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Press release: Climate footprint of combustion engines far worse than that of electric cars

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From a climate perspective, a battery-powered vehicle is always superior to a combustion engine, even if the latter refuels with synthetic fuels in the future. This is the conclusion of a new study conducted by the ifeu Institute on behalf of the Federal Environment Agency, which analyses the environmental impact of cars, lorries and vans with different drive systems.

It has now been scientifically confirmed: Electrically powered vehicles have clear climate advantages over combustion engines. This is true even if cars with combustion engines are powered by electricity-based synthetic fuels - so-called e-fuels - in the future. This applies equally to cars, lorries and light commercial vehicles.

On behalf of the Federal Environment Agency, ifeu researchers have calculated the environmental impact that the three vehicle types generate with different drive types over the entire life cycle of the vehicles - from production to use and disposal. The study considered and compared petrol, diesel and natural gas combustion engines, 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.

Electric cars the most environmentally friendly (car) choice in the short and long term
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 modelling 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 drive systems and their environmental impact'.

The researchers assume that the global economy will be largely climate-neutral by 2050. This will make all drive types significantly more climate-friendly in the future than they are today and reduce GHG emissions of all vehicle types by at least 95 per cent compared to today. However, even in this scenario, battery-powered electric vehicles would require significantly lower amounts of renewable energy than vehicles using electricity-based synthetic fuels (e-fuels), which are expensive to produce. A car (built in 2030) would have to run on between 70-90 per cent 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 analysed the production, use, continued use and disposal of these batteries. And came to the conclusion that their balance sheet is not as bad as their reputation: over the entire life cycle, the batteries are responsible for only 15 to 20 per cent of the climate impact of an electric vehicle. At the same time, there is still great potential to further improve the life cycle assessment 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 lorries.

The new ifeu study confirms the course already taken by large parts of the economy and politics of focussing primarily on battery-electric drives in transport. 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. Ensuring that the energy market makes e-fuels available for road transport at acceptable prices is an enormous challenge.

In the foreseeable future, it will be possible to make the national electricity mix fossil-free much more quickly. And this development can be best utilised with battery-powered vehicles. According to the study, the greenhouse gas-neutral transport of the future can be realised most quickly with electric vehicles.

More information:

Download complete study as PDF (in German): 
„Analyse der Umweltbilanz von Kraftfahrzeugen mit alternativen Antrieben oder Kraftstoffen auf dem Weg zu einem treibhausgasneutralen Verkehr“

Download press release as PDF (in German): 
Klimabilanz von Verbrennern weit schlechter als von E-Autos

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