How do electric vehicles reduce the CO2 footprint

Reduce CO2"Electric cars are not the instant silver bullet"

Ralf Krauter: According to your current analysis, it will hardly be possible in the short term to improve the climate balance of the transport sector with the help of electric cars. Why not?

Felix Creutzig: So the electric cars will make an important contribution, but there are two factors that mean that immediate effectiveness is very limited. First of all, that the electricity in the current German network and naturally also in other countries contains CO2 on average, and thus the per-kilometer emissions are not yet at zero and will still be relevant. And the other point is that the production of electric cars also produces CO2 emissions itself, and that limits the overall balance. The electric cars still make sense, but they're not the instant silver bullet right now.

Battery production problem

Herbs: This means that the first problem is that a lot of coal electricity still ends up in the electricity tank of electric cars, which means that pollutants such as CO2 are generated somewhere. And the second effect would be that the ecological balance for the production of electric cars is not that positive either. Do they perform worse than conventional vehicles?

Creutzig: Exactly, this is mainly due to battery production. That is more than 100 kilograms of CO2 emissions per kilowatt hour, which actually arise in addition. That has to be considered, and above all, these are emissions that occur at the beginning of the life cycle of an electric car and not over the long term. Therefore, if you take an overall account of this over time, you first have CO2 debts, so to speak, which are then paid off through the use of the car compared to normal cars.

Herbs: What do your analyzes show - you have already said that the savings effect is not as great as one would expect - how great could it be if we rely heavily on electromobility? How much CO2 could be saved in the future?

Creutzig: If we have no decarbonisation of the electricity grid or only a slow one, then the effect will hardly exist, but if we also get coal from the electricity grid as quickly as possible by 2050 and above all, then we will have additional savings of more than 60 percent in the transport sector through a strong electrification of the fleet.

Herbs: 60 percent savings by 2050, that would be a very big effect. Does that mean that electromobility is definitely the way forward?

Creutzig: Exactly, but that is conditional for a rapid decarbonisation of the electricity sector. Fast actually means clear steps even before 2030, because this will reduce CO2 emissions in the production of electric cars and batteries. And of course there are also international effects: If the batteries are imported from China, then of course the CO2 footprint in China is also very important.

"Strengthen alternative means of transport"

Herbs: So we need more green electricity in the grids so that the electric cars can play their bonus. In your opinion, what other measures seem advisable in order to reduce the CO2 balance of transport quickly?

Creutzig: So this view that electric cars make sense, but also have their own problems, suggests that we should electrify the cars, but not rely on huge masses of new cars, but above all alternative means of transport such as cycling and classic public transport Local transport should continue to strengthen. And then also advance car sharing so that we can achieve the same mobility with fewer cars and thus also reduce production-related emissions from cars and at the same time promote healthier transport, especially in metropolitan areas.

Herbs: Would that also help to achieve faster success, because the figures you mentioned earlier, i.e. 60 percent of CO2 emissions by 2050, if everything goes well and we have a lot of green electricity in the grid, that's a very long-term calculation, but we need drastic reductions in the transport sector in the next five to ten years.

Creutzig: Exactly. I am currently thinking that a large part of the mobility in cities can be done without the car or with car sharing. That is why I think that there will also be major reductions in emissions quickly, for example through electric bicycles, which then actually have a much better balance sheet.

"Promote smaller electric vehicles"

Herbs: What should traffic / environmental politicians take away from their holistic analysis of the CO2 balance of electromobility and what should the car manufacturers?

Creutzig: So politics can continue to promote electric vehicles, but above all smaller vehicles, because they have a better balance sheet, and electric bicycles. At the same time, electromobility should not be seen as the only instrument, but other local transport policies should also be introduced and, for example, CO2 pricing should also be included in the transport sector. For automobile manufacturers, the production chain should be as low in CO2 as possible. Either in the factories in Germany or with imports and in the supply chain, that extreme care is taken where the batteries come from.

Statements by our interlocutors reflect their own views. Deutschlandfunk does not adopt statements made by its interlocutors in interviews and discussions as its own.