Electric cars do not pollute “a thousand times more” than diesel cars, as one viral message claims

The figure is not correct for any type of pollution, especially air pollution

You’ve asked us about a text message on Telegram, accompanied by a video by the Spanish journalist Federico Jiménez Losantos, claiming that an electric car pollutes “a thousand times more than a diesel car” over the course of its life cycle, from the extraction of raw materials until it become waste.

This claim is FALSE. The figure is not correct for any type of pollution, especially air pollution, for which there is the most scientific evidence. Studies on other types of pollution, e.g. the pollution of rivers, lakes and soil, are more limited, but the figure of “a thousand times more polluting” does not appear in any case. 

“An electric car pollutes a thousand times more in its construction, life cycle and disposal than a single diesel car during the same period”

Pollution is a very broad concept that encompasses various environmental indicators: from the emission of greenhouse gases to the contamination of water and soil, from air pollution caused by nitrous oxides or particulate matter to acoustic pollution.

After searching for the available scientific literature, Verificat did not find any study according to which electric cars pollute a thousand times more than internal combustion vehicles in any of the areas mentioned above. Several articles do state that the pollution of freshwater and soil systems, and the emission of substances toxic to humans, are worse than with diesel vehicles. However, there is admittedly little evidence available and, within that body of evidence, there are papers that contradict one another.

Fewer greenhouse gases

The body of research on the pollution of electric vehicles focuses essentially on their greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) compared to conventional vehicles powered by petrol or diesel engines. These emissions, which represent the biggest environmental impact of the automotive sector, are commonly referred to as the “carbon footprint”.

Although the GHG emissions of electric vehicles, which are mostly produced during the manufacturing phase and the use of the vehicle, depend on the characteristics of the vehicle (size, power, weight, etc.) and the country’s energy mix, the latest studies suggest that these emissions are lower than those of their diesel-fuelled equivalents in most European countries.

In general, the emissions associated with manufacturing are higher for electric vehicles, but they are offset as the car accumulates kilometres. With Spain’s energy mix, after less than “four years in operation […] the combustion vehicle has accumulated emissions that will be higher than those of the electric vehicle [with equivalent characteristics]”, Olga Alcaraz, a member of the University Research Institute for Sustainability Science And Technology (IS) at the Technical University of Catalonia (UPC), tells Verificat.

Other pollution sources

The scientific research on the environmental impact of electric cars has been largely focused on GHG emissions, which means that there is limited evidence about other indicators of this technology and, as a result, the comparison of impacts between some and other vehicles in these areas is more uncertain.

The EEA report points out that electric vehicles can contribute to better local air quality in cities, but this potential improvement depends on whether the electricity is generated by fossil fuels or renewables, as well as the location of the power plants. If the plants are far from urban centres, it is more likely that e-vehicles can improve the air quality in the cities.

There is a similar scenario with noise pollution, which depends on the traffic speed. The indicator improves when the speed of the vehicle is less than 30 km/h, but, as the speed increases, it is on the same level as the conventional vehicle. However, evidence about the pollution of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems is not very extensive and it is not possible to be sure that one or another vehicle will benefit in a general way, given that different studies have found contradictory results.

The report by the European agency does point out that “research suggests that electric vehicles may be responsible for greater negative impacts” than diesel or petrol vehicles in terms of the release of substances toxic to humans into the environment, although it notes that the scientific literature on this “is limited”.