What types of pollution does an electric vehicle produce?

Electric vehicles help fight against global warming and reduce the air pollution that causes 307,000 premature deaths in Europe every year. But electric vehicles are not a miracle solution. They require a lot of energy to produce, charging them may need large amounts of fossil fuels (depending on the source of the electricity used) and – like petrol or diesel cars – they emit fine friction particles.

An energy-intensive manufacturing process

Electric vehicles require twice as much energy to produce as petrol or diesel cars; because battery production needs large amounts of fossil fuels and metals, lithium especially, but also aluminium, copper and cobalt. As a result, building an electric vehicle generates significant mining and subsoil pollution as well as high greenhouse gas (CO2) emissions. To minimise the environmental impact of this process, it is therefore essential to ensure that their batteries are used for as long as possible, and that they are recycled.

This ecological balance depends on what is used to produce the electricity

Electric vehicles are not carbon neutral. However, when they are used in France, an electric vehicle emits three to four times less CO2 over its entire life cycle than a petrol or diesel car. The results don’t look quite so positive for the few countries with carbon-intensive electricity production systems, such as China, India, Germany and Poland. What type of pollution does an electric vehicle produce? CO2 emissions along the same lines as petrol and diesel cars. Things could actually be worse, according to a report by WWF Germany. Electric cars powered by energy from coal-fired power plants are even said to produce more CO2 than the fuel pumped into petrol and diesel cars. It is therefore essential to consider the energy source of the electricity used to recharge an electric vehicle in order to properly assess its environmental impact.

Fine friction particles

Another way an electric vehicle produces pollution is via fine particles from brake and tyre wear. According to the OECD, next-generation electric vehicles only reduce PM10 by 4-7% and increase PM2.5 by 3-8% compared to conventional vehicles. Why? The batteries in electric vehicles are heavy, which means that manufacturers have to use wider tyres and friction brakes as well as a regenerative braking system. Friction brakes are therefore essential for braking during the last kilometre, so fine particle pollution in cities looks like it’s here to stay. Yet it increases the risk of heart failure or infarction, asthma, bronchiolitis, lung cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, and stroke. To be fair, electric vehicles do not produce fine particle pollution as exhaust fumes. And that is an important advantage compared to petrol and diesel vehicles.

But there is much room for improvement to reduce the CO2 and fine particles emitted from electric vehicles, as their use is set to become widespread, particularly in the European Union where new petrol and diesel cars will be banned from sale from 2035.

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Stinging eyes, breathlessness, a cough that won’t budge: air pollution – especially when it’s cause by fine particles – is irritating, but can also be the cause of serious diseases. It even puts lives in danger: in France, air pollution cuts life expectancy by two years. And in New Delhi, this figure leaps to 10 years. In terms of deaths on a global scale, air pollution is just as dangerous as smoking, and even more serious than alcohol and unclean water (there are three times as many air pollution-related deaths) and HIV (six times more). Who is most at risk? People suffering from respiratory and cardiac disorders, diabetes, infants, seniors and pregnant women.
One in five deaths around the world is attributable to outdoor air pollution yet politicians are struggling to remedy the situation. In France, the government has even been found at fault by the Court of Justice of the European Union and the French Council of State for not doing enough, while air pollution causes more than 40,000 premature deaths every year. What’s to blame? Natural phenomena certainly contribute (pollen, forest fires, soil erosion, volcanic eruptions, etc.), but most of the damage is caused by human activity (agriculture, industry, transport, construction, etc.), which generates gases and fine particles. In some parts of France transport is the worst culprit, in others, agriculture comes top of the list. In the fight against outdoor air pollution in France, measures must now be taken on domestic heating and road transport, which are respectively responsible for half and a quarter of fine particle emissions in Ile-de-France.
Fine particles are harmful to human health. They can cause or exacerbate breathing and lung difficulties, cardiovascular diseases and even neurodegenerative diseases. This health risk can be limited if car owners would fit particle filters to their vehicles. Installed on exhaust or braking systems, particle filters are anti-pollution devices which capture fine particles emitted by vehicles. There are two types of particle filters: installations designed to capture particles from exhaust fumes generated by diesel and petrol vehicles, and those designed to recover fine particles from brake wear.