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What's better: electric cars vs combustion cars?

Kathleen Schuster
May 23, 2024

On the road to a carbon-free future, a lot of drivers are facing a tough dilemma: Is it worth switching to an electric car if the gas-powered car I have can still run a few more years? Is the environmental footprint of an EV really that much better? We spoke to several experts about the upside and downside of e-mobility from range anxiety to charging infrastructure and more. Click here to listen.


In light of the climate crisis, switching to e-mobility might seem like a no-brainer to some. But to others, it poses a huge dilemma.  Is it really worth ditching a perfectly good car for a new one? Afterall, everything comes at a cost to the environment at some point or another.

In this episode of Living Planet, we speak to several experts who walk us step-by-step through the environmental impact of electric vehicles versus cars with an internal combustion engine.

Episode transcript

This is Living Planet, I’m Neil King.

This week we have a "What’s better?" installment for you to help answer your questions about how to make greener choices in your everyday lives.  

In this episode, we’re going to hear from my Living Planet co-host Kathleen Schuster who’s been asking herself a question on a lot of drivers’ minds: What’s better for the environment, getting a new electric vehicle or holding on to the car I already have?

And our journey starts by taking a spin in my own diesel-powered car…

SFX Neil’s minivan pulls into parking spot

Neil: Hey, Kathleen, you coming?

SFX Kathleen opens door, beeping inside car

Kathleen: Neil.

Neil: A bit wiffy from the dog, but you can leave the window open. Alright…

Kathleen: Let me get buckled up here, hold on…

Neil: Ready to go?

Kathleen: Wait! Hold on…

Neil: You're safe with me. (laughs)

Kathleen: And so I want to ask you a true or false question. Um (laughs) Should I wait until we get onto the Autobahn? I'll let you merge first.

Neil: It’s ok, just… (laughs)

Kathleen: I don’t want to get into a wreck, you merge first  (laughs)

Neil: All good I can do. I can do both.

Kathleen: Yes, yes. So true or false people who drive e-cars automatically have a lower carbon footprint than people who drive combustion cars.

Neil: It depends, doesn't it? (laughs)

Kathleen: Very good!

Neil. Oh, that's the right answer, is it? I guess it depends on how many miles they've done, right?

Kathleen: Yeah, that's definitely part of it.

Neil: And also, how what the infrastructure is where the electricity comes from is it come doesn't when? How is it powered? Is it is it like coal plants, but providing the electricity or is it, I don't know, renewables?

Kathleen: Yeah. So that some of what goes into it…

Kathleen: OK. So, we're talking about whether it's more environmentally friendly to buy a new e-car or to hold on to the car that you have. How old your car? Cause this is a regular a regular.

Neil: This is a diesel-powered car. Yeah, I've had this since 2012, so it's got over 150,000 kilometers on the clock here. So, yeah, I mean, it's still got a good 50 to go, but I am sort of also thinking of whether it's time to sell it maybe. And whether I should switch or not.

Kathleen: Switch to an e-car?

Neil: Yeah.

Neil: Incidentally, it was quite interesting, Connor, one of our colleagues, I was at the coffee machine with him the other day. He's got a brand new SUV e-car. A really nice car.

And for some reason that came up with another colleague who was asking about this car, and it turns out he says, well, I've got an e-car. And he kind of presented it that it was an environmentally good thing, and she called him out and she said well, well, that's just as bad!, she says.


And he was quite taken aback. And we had to laugh about it afterwards.

But yeah, it's true. I mean, a lot of environmental aspects that factor into e-cars, you know where the rare earths are mined for the battery etcetera. But also, the tire wear e-cars are heavier. So, you have more tire wear which is a main microplastics problem in terms of pollution. So, a lot of things that factor in when you get an e-car that I think a lot of people perhaps try not to think about as much.

Kathleen: Yeah, it's been really interesting talking to experts about this. I think one thing that piqued my interest was also how there have been a number of articles written about, you know, like, if this study comes out that that shows that e- cars actually aren't that great for the environment and that gets picked up really quickly.

nd of course, you know, as journalists, we try to be very careful with studies. And so, it's also interesting talking to experts about why they think those studies seem to vary so much, yeah.

Neil: No, absolutely. I’ll be interested to see what you’ve come up with.

Kathleen:  Yeah. We just have to get back to work now at this point, right?

Neil:  We're heading back. This is we're heading north again now.

Kathleen:  I have no idea where we are right now …


Let’s start at the very beginning of this environmental equation. When we talk about the emissions created by cars – whether they run on fossil fuels or electricity – we’re talking about the emissions created over their lifecycle.

Brian Cox: "So, if you look at the environmental impacts of a car, there's a couple of big categories that you need to think of…"

That’s Brian Cox, a mechanical engineer originally from Canada. He’s currently a project manager at a small consulting company in Switzerland called INFRAS. And right now, he’s trying to answer this same exact question for the Swiss government: is it better to buy a new EV or to keep driving a car with an internal combustion engine?  

Brian Cox: "One is building the vehicle. There combustion cars are actually a little bit simpler …"

So, one indicator to look at is the carbon footprint at the very first stage of a car’s lifecycle. When the raw materials are sourced and the car gets built.

A study in 2021 by the US-based research group called Transportation Energy Institute, found, for example, that sourcing the materials for a combustion car emitted about 4 tons of CO2.

For an EV, it was 5 tons. So, a little more.

But once the CO2 from the production phase was added, an EV’s total carbon footprint jumped to 11 tons of carbon dioxide. More than twice the footprint of a combustion car’s.

So, as it turns out, combustion cars do a little better during the production stage.

Brian Cox: "But in terms of operating the vehicles, electric cars have no direct emissions, so they definitely win there."

So, using the example from before, according to that data, a combustion car emits 48 tons of carbon dioxide from driving alone over its lifespan.

That’s assuming the car is driven about 320,000 kilometers. Or 200,000 miles, for our US listeners.

Now, for an EV, the actual act of driving has a carbon footprint of zero.

Brian Cox: "Building an electric car pays off after just a couple of years in Switzerland, so even if you were to buy a new gasoline or diesel car and then the next day scrap it and buy an electric car, you're still better off than if you had just driven that diesel car."

What Brian’s talking about here is an EV’s “carbon debt.” Since driving produces zero carbon emissions, it can balance out the carbon footprint from the production phase. Well, kind of…  

Brian Cox: "So, if you buy a new combustion car and a new electric car and drive them both every day in Switzerland after less than 20 or 30,000 kilometers, which means two or three years, you're already saving in terms in terms of climate change emissions. In a country like Germany or an average European country, it's maybe like 60 or 70,000 kilometers, but that's still after six or seven years." 

The reason a Swiss driver can pay off an EV’s carbon debt faster is because the power grid has a lower carbon footprint. But like he said, the time to pay off the debt will vary a lot depending on where drivers get their electricity from.

Maybe they’re using solar energy? Or natural gas? Nuclear energy even. Or in the worst case, coal.

And this is where it gets a bit tricky to find straight forward numbers to figure out whether an EV is always better than a combustion vehicle.

That’s also because the studies looking at the environmental footprint of different cars seem to produce different numbers.

One person who’s looked at a lot of these studies is a man named Jeremy Michalek. He directs the Vehicle Electrification Group at Carnegie Mellon University in the US.

Jeremy Michalek: "I mean, environmental impact is not a well-defined thing. I mean, there's lots of ways you could impact the environment. So, what exactly are we talking about?

And so most commonly studies will look at greenhouse gas emissions because climate change is the biggest environmental issue that where most of us are focused on right now and if you just look at greenhouse gas emissions, then electric vehicles look quite good in most places.

But if you add on air pollution and air quality, electric vehicles are sometimes worse. Kind of depends where you live, how much coal is on the is in the power grid because you get sulfur dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants and they turn into particles downwind. We breathe them in and we get more cardiovascular and respiratory disease."

Coal-fired power plants are responsible for a fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, more than half of which comes from China.

Incidentally, China is also where nearly 60% of new EVs were sold in 2023. That’s according to figures from the International Energy Agency.

And while the other two big EV car markets – the EU and the US – also rely on coal for some of their energy, they have a larger energy mix and more renewable energy than China.

It’s still a huge challenge sussing out what exactly this means for an EV’s footprint, though.

Jeremy Michalek: "And so really the more we retire coal, the better electric vehicles look environmentally. North America and Europe use more natural gas than coal, but they still use a substantial amount of coal.

So, when you get down to individual countries, it can get more complicated because countries trade electricity with each other. And so even if the electricity in your country is made from cleaner sources, if you plug in an electric vehicle, it could induce changes in power plants in a neighboring country. The power system is very complicated and interconnected, so it can be hard to nail those things down."

We’re going to talk about what EVs might mean for the power grid in a few minutes. But first, let’s go back to our original example of an EV versus a combustion car.


The data used here were drawn from more than 150 papers to form a baseline, and according to that estimation, charging an EV results in 28 tons of CO2 over its lifetime. And for many drivers, these emissions are basically displaced to the power supplier. Which might be local or might be in another region or country.

If the energy is from renewables, the CO2 footprint will be lower for the EV driver. If it’s from fossil fuels, then it’ll be higher.


To put this in perspective though, over its lifetime, a combustion car has a carbon footprint that’s about 40% greater than an EV’s. And its role in bringing mobility to the masses has made it the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases today across the world.

The vast majority of that CO2 comes from the exhaust fumes. Which also contain other toxic gases that lead to acid rain, smog and respiratory disease.

But do you remember the pollution EV’s cause in the first phase of their life cycle?  The sourcing and production phase? That’s something we need to take a closer look at.

There’s an expert on e-car batteries named Georg Bieker who spends his time assessing the life cycles of both of these types of cars for the International Council on Clean Transportation.

Georg Bieker: "You can imagine the lithium-ion batteries as a combination of two book shelves, and you have books that are moved between these bookshelves. The books are lithium ions, and the bookshelves are graphite at the anode."

Georg says there are two main batteries on the market: NMC batteries – batteries that use lithium, nickel, manganese, cobalt oxide – which are more popular in the US and Europe. And lithium iron phosphate – known as LFP batteries – which are more popular in China.

Georg Bieker: "And then these materials I mentioned lithium, nickel, manganese, cobalt oxide or lithium iron phosphate. And the cobalt is part of the structure of the bookshelf at the cathode."

The two words that pop out here are lithium and cobalt. They’re essential to e-car batteries, but mining them is already causing a lot of damage.  

Take lithium, for example. One way to mine it is from hard rock deposits. That’s what you’ll fine in Australia, for instance.

But the method being used in South America’s “lithium triangle,” which holds the world’s largest reserves, involves large volumes of water into the ground. This brings salt water to the surface and when that evaporates, it leaves behind lithium.

It’s also putting water supplies in Chile, Argentina and Bolivia at risk where water scarcity is already a problem. Plus, locals are also concerned about contaminated groundwater.

So how much water are we talking here? According to the European NGO group Wetlands International, it takes about 2 million liters of water to mine one ton of lithium. And that only translates to about 125 electric cars.

But, interestingly, Georg notes that gasoline-production requires 10 times more water over its lifetime.

Still, it’s a lot of water. Especially considering around a third of the lithium mined in 2022 came from South America.

Georg Bieker: "So batteries are highly recyclable. You can recover most of the materials that are in the batteries. And when you look into what is written to law in the EU already, you see that, yeah, 7% of the lithium and 90 to 95 of the percent of the nickel and cobalt and copper in these batteries need to be recovered and they need to be recovered in a high quality. The question there is, will it be economic to recycle them compared to new raw material mining. And there there's the need of regulations to ensure that batteries are really recycled. It depends on the, on the market dynamics." 

Not only is the EU requiring companies to recycle these metals, but the US is incentivizing it.

In fact, a clause in the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 gives the option of putting the label “American-made” on recycled batteries, even if the original battery was sourced from somewhere else. In exchange, the automakers get subsidies.

The result of both of these laws has been a rise in recycling factories on both continents, and also in Asia.

Georg says it’ll take another 15 to 20 years until large numbers of EVs reach the end of their life and that’s when, he says, we’ll see large-scale recycling. For now, the recycling that’s going on is to reuse scraps in the production phase.


So, recycling might mean more sustainable batteries, but the recycling process will also require a lot of energy. Not to mention the hazard of disposing of toxic byproducts.

Georg Bieker: "So there certainly is a negative social impact of raw material mining of cobalt these days in from the from the Congo. And this is connected again also other types of mining have negative social implications, including yeah, human rights abuses, displacement of communities, and so there there's many bad things connected to mining and also to the mining of battery materials." 

In 2022, EVs made up about 40% of global cobalt demand, and most of that cobalt – over 70% --is being mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo. That’s according to the Cobalt Institute, a UK-based trade association.

Not only does cobalt mining rely on fossil fuels and cause habitat destruction, toxic cobalt particles can cause respiratory disease and can also accumulate in plants grown in contaminated soil. Plus, the ore sometimes has radioactive uranium in it, which poses a health hazard to the miners.  

And then there’s the question of the conditions in artisanal mines. Child labor is well-documented and so are perilous working conditions. Tunnel collapses are the norm.

But Georg says the trend is moving away from cobalt which is an expensive material.

Georg Bieker: "So today the average EV has a range of maybe 400 kilometers, and that's already far more than the average user needs. We have some models in the market today that offer range of 600 kilometers, so maybe that's where the market trend is going. 

I see that in the future, the market will split we will see still see people that really want to spend all their money to have the long range. But I see that there will be in, in the mass market that will be trying to lower battery capacities because people will just look more at the cost and this range range anxiety will go down as the charging infrastructure develops." 

So, how long can these batteries last? At the moment, a lot of warranties on e-car batteries are for eight years. Brian Cox, who we heard from at the top of the episode, says batteries can easily last for anywhere between 200 and 400 thousand kilometers.

And Georg says, it might actually be more than that.

Georg Bieker: "Based on the research that we find the current battery technology is able to run for three to 5,000 charge and discharge cycle cycles and this translates into a range of more than, yeah 1,000,000 kilometers, which is far more than you need for the average life of a car. So we expect that the battery will last much longer than the actual vehicle will be used. And just very recently CTL the biggest battery manufacturer introduced the battery with a warranty of 1.5 million kilometers. So, so the market is changing already in that direction. And an important point is that we should not mix up the expected lifetime with the warranty. The warranty is like the minimum."

So, in theory, e-cars might have a longer lifespan than combustion cars in the long run. And if coupled with cleaner energy and large-scale battery recycling, they might end up having an even lower environmental footprint in the coming decades, too.

Jeremy Michalek, who we heard from earlier, says if more EVs are on the road, that might also lead to new trends in how power grids are built in order to accommodate a greater demand for electricity. One really intriguing technology is called vehicle to grid.

Jeremy Michalek: "So that technology is often referred to as vehicle to grid. There's a version of that that we have now, which is if you buy your electric pickup truck and your power goes out in your house, you can power the house or part of the house with your electric pickup truck. I mean, that's a feature that gets advertised now. When we talk about vehicle to grid, sometimes we're just talking about that where I'm reducing the load that my house is asking for from the grid because part of it's being provided by the vehicle.

But often we're talking about actually sending energy back into the power grid. That's really, you know, what vehicle to grid is often referring to. And so that might be helpful if, for example, you had a moment where the wind died down and it was really cloudy and you just aren't getting the power you need out of your renewable resources at that moment.

You could draw some power back in from all of these storage units, distributed storage units and all the vehicles across the country until you had a moment where you're generating more that power again and then push it back out so that vehicle to grid can really increase the potential for building intermittent renewables like wind and solar by providing capability to fill in some of those gaps."

There’s one last note here. And we’re going to hear from Brian Cox, who featured at the beginning of the episode.

Kathleen: So, with the combustion car, you know we're thinking of a listener who's saying, okay, I have a combustion car at home. I've been driving it for, I don't know how many years, maybe 8 to 10 years, and it's still good. You know, why should I go and buy or lease an EV? I don't drive my car very much. This is it just, you know, in theory, what would your response to that be?

Brian Cox: "So two things to unpack there. Until now, we focus mostly on climate change. And if you look at other impact categories like air pollution, then it's not always so clear cut. But in terms of climate change.

Nowadays you have to look pretty hard to find a scenario where electric cars are clearly worse.

There are some scenarios where you buy an electric car as a second car and you keep it mostly in your garage and you drive it.

On Sundays. So, you're not driving a lot. So the extra energy that you need to build this battery isn't really paid off because you don't drive it very far.

If you're not driving very often, buying your own electric car maybe isn't the best option environmentally.

The better option there would be to use public transit or car sharing. If you can rent an electric car for those few rare times when you need your car and public transit don't doesn't work.

This is going to be far better than driving your old combustion car."

Neil: Coming up, Kathleen and I take a spin in an electric car. But first, this message.

Promo CBC

Kathleen: Ok, so I’m here with Neil again outside. What are we doing here, Neil?

Neil: Well, you know we started out with my car which was a diesel-powered car. But I thought, you know, for this episode to round it out, we need to get into an e-car, right? And so, I actually got in touch with one of the first adopters, so to speak, in our section from the science desk, Conor Dylan. He's got a brand new e-car and it’s an SUV. It's really quite a snazzy car, and he's going to come and pick us up, and we're going to go for a spin. And I think a lot of the aspects that you covered in the episode, we can also run by him.

Kathleen: OK, sounds good. Do you think he’s going to let you drive?

Neil: I don't know, do you think we should ask him?


Conor: Let’s roll!

Kathleen: Connor can Neil drive your car?

Conor: If you want to no. No, no, you cannot. So this thing is like four months old and it's through my wife's work that we got this car and I there's no way I can let other people drive it.

Neil: You don’t trust me, is that what you’re saying Conor?

Conor:  It's a diplomatic way to say I don't trust you driving this thing.


Neil: Can’t open it?

Kathleen: I can't even open the door.

Neil: Because it's electric.

Conor: I electrified it.


Kathleen: So, like, why did you guys decide to get an E car?

Conor: Like we have only owned a car now total of four years. The first car we got was also electric. It was a smaller car and then we traded in for this one. And before that we didn't have any car and so we were happily reliant on bikes, public transportation. Our neighbors introduced us to other people as, “Look, these are our neighbors who don't have a car” because we're in the suburbs.

Kathleen: Was the decision not to have a car environmental or financial?

Conor: Both.


Conor: And it felt good to not have a car cause I don't know, I associate cars with pollution and money and unexpected costs. And then we finally decided, okay, we've got two kids, let's get one. And then it was environmental, the decision to go electric.

Kathleen: Like in your previous life in the states, were you completely reliant on a car?

Conor: Of actually no, I managed not to be, well, no, I was reliant on some form of car. It wasn't my car.


Conor: I think, I think I've backed us up into where we're about to…

Neil: … head into the Rhine.

Conor: Yeah, drive into the Rhine River. I'm going to turn this around.

Neil: I wonder what would happen to an electric car if you went into the water with that?

Conor: Electric fish, electric eels.


Kathleen: Have you had this issue of like having to charge with extreme temperatures? Cause that's also one thing when I was talking to several researchers that they were saying, you know, wears down life of a battery really quickly. Has that been your experience? Because actually the extreme weather we've had here has tended more towards heat in the past few years.

Conor: We have never even thought about that once and maybe we should have been. But I think like a lot of e-car owners or leasers here in Germany, we're going to have this thing for three years and then trade it in. And so, to be perfectly honest, the long-term health of the battery is not one of our primary concerns. It's not something that we're thinking about. Oops…

Neil: This big combustion engine caravan blocking the road here. He’s not happy.

Kathleen: Yeah, the look on his face was not friendly.


Conor: And so to get back to your point on whether or not the car is actually good for the environment, my operating assumption, because the climate science is so complex and the different kinds of batteries and whether they can be reused etc, etc. And my operating assumption has always been that we're still in the very early phase of e-car technology. And so by buying or leasing a car, we're helping to kind of continue the drive to create new infrastructure, to create new technologies, new battery tech that in 10 or 20 or 30 years’ time is going to make this stuff look completely antiquated.

And again, what's the alternative? We keep using, you know, fossil fuels, oil that I don't see huge improvements for the environment happening there.

Kathleen: I don't know. I'm still really intrigued by this question that I think a lot of people have, which is, you know, “I have a car that works perfectly fine. Is it really better to just get rid of this and go for an EV?”

And yeah, I mean Neil, actually I want to ask you about that again, because that's the situation you're in. I mean, you have a car that has a good number of kilometers on it. And yeah, I mean, how, how do you feel about that now that you've heard the episode?

Neil: Well, it hasn't really changed. My gut feeling that you know the damage is already done. I've already bought the car. The raw materials have been used. Just getting rid of it now and buying something brand new, it kind of still feels wrong, even though it might save CO2 if I get an electric one.

But I sort of, you know, would resolve that cognitive dissonance with maybe reducing my meat consumption and working in other areas where I can bring that down, I don't feel the pressure right now to get rid of that combustion engine. I think I would try and just switch more to cycling if I can rather than buying something brand.

But that's just me. I mean, other people listen to this probably feel very different and thinking, what the hell am I playing at?

Kathleen: Well, I mean, I keep thinking of like, I don't know how you see this, Connor, but when I think of back home in the States, a lot of people, they don't have the luxury to choose whether they drive or not because they need the money. And that's the only way that they can get to work or wherever they need to go. And like you see this in large urban areas where they've, you know, cut public transportation, you're really up a creek if you don't have a car. But then also to be able to afford an e-car is a huge luxury. I don't know, it just is such a big dilemma.

Neil: I remember the other day, we were at the coffee machine, you and I, here at DW, and for some reason I don't know, it actually came up, but there was this girl there and your car came up and that you were driving an e-car. A nd you said, well, it's an SUV. It's a big e-car.

Conor: She said, that's even worse. That's even worse. And I was trying, no, I was trying to figure out what she meant by it, because to some extent she's right. So a large car, SUV-style car that is electric, a lot of batteries underneath our feet here. It's heavy. And the reason that the tires are so big is it's got to carry all this weight. So we are spewing more rubber particles in the into the environment right now than other similar cars, other cars this size definitely.

We’re going past another small coop on the left here, and that's just not putting as much rubber crap in the environment as we are. So there are disadvantages to it and I'm not even, I don't feel like an SUV driver. This just sort of happened to me and it is…

Neil and Kathleen burst out laughing

Conor: No, I'm serious. It is, no, but it it's super comfortable.

Kathleen. We can’t absolve you of your sins, you realize.


Conor: we're all making compromises and like trying to do the best. But the world is what it is


Conor: It's like a small step that we wanted to do and it makes us feel better. I would. I would feel bad if this were a combustion engine SUV. I'd be like, man, what am I doing with myself?

Kathleen: You’d feel bad except for that great feeling you have behind the wheel?

Conor: I I mean I have to say that E cars are they're fun. One thing I don't understand, I don't know how they miss this. but they should have advertised that the acceleration is crazy in these things like like roller coaster.

Kathleen: Are we going to have to bleep this part out?

Conor: No. Why? No.

Kathleen: We’re not actually doing an ad here…

Neil: I think Conor now just has to show us the acceleration.

Conor speeds up, Kathleen shrieks

Conor: Why do they not advertise that?

Neil: That’s good, you delivered.

Kathleen: I had a last question, but I've literally forgotten it now.

Conor: It’s in your stomach now.

Neil: We’ll certainly be back after this, once we’ve got out of this car and Kathleen has recovered.

Kathleen: Ok, thanks Conor.

Conor: Any time.

Today’s episode of Living Planet was written and produced by Kathleen Schuster, and edited by me, Neil King. Our sound engineers were Jürgen Kuhn and Gerd Georgii.

If you have any questions or story suggestions, you can send us an email or even better a voice message to livingplanet@dw.com.

And by the by, if you want to listen back to this and other additions of Living Planet, you can always subscribe to the podcast. It’s downloadable, it’s free and available on all major podcasting platforms.

Living Planet is brought to you by DW in Bonn, Germany.


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