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.

Discover more questions

Every year in France, air pollution and fine particles cause 40,000 premature deaths. If we’re going to reduce that impact, we need to understand more about them. But behind the generic term “fine particles” lurks a variety of meanings. Fine particles can take different sizes and shapes, can be made up of different things, and can come from different sources. It’s time to take a closer look.
The term “fine particle” refers to an aggregate of polluting chemical compounds created during combustion, friction or chemical reactions. Forest fires, volcanic eruptions, and desert dust: fine particles can occur naturally. But most fine particles are generated by human activity. How? Mainly from road traffic (exhaust gases and abrasion caused by brakes on tyres and the road), home heating, and industrial and agricultural emissions.
As we inhale 15,000 litres of air every day, we are continually exposed to air pollution, especially in large cities. These gases and fine particles are not only harmful to our health, but they also damage the environment and ecosystems and accelerate climate change. Where does air pollution come from? Although pollutants may be of natural origin: pollens, forest fires, sand mists, soil erosion, and volcanic eruptions generate pollution over which we have very little control, human activity is the main source of air pollution. That is evidenced by the sharp decline in air quality from the 19th century, with the development of industry and road traffic.