As part of a sustainability study at the Heidelberg Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, new electric cars were compared with used gasoline engines. The result is surprising.

The question of whether a new one Electric car It's actually more environmentally friendly than continuing to drive a used gasoline engine. In general, driving an electric car is considered more environmentally friendly, but one of the basic rules of sustainability reminds us that it is also important to use used cars for as long as possible. The Heidelberg Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (Ifeu) has taken up this debate and carried out a comprehensive and scientifically unique comparison.

Study: electric car versus gasoline car

In the recently published study, Ifeu gives a clear verdict. Considering the entire useful life of the vehicle, an electric car is in almost all cases the more sustainable option than a combustion engine. What is special about Ifeu's study is that, unlike previous studies, he not only compared new cars, but also compared gasoline engines with electric vehicles in long-term operation.

Although the emissions involved in the production of electric cars are comparatively high, they have a more positive overall environmental footprint than their petrol or diesel counterparts. This is because the latter use most of their resources not in production, but in driving. However, the opposite is true with electric vehicles. In the long term, its lower emissions during operation more than offset the increase in emissions from production, according to the study. Over its entire life cycle, a new electric car releases almost half as many pollutants into the environment as a used car that runs on fossil fuels.

A change is worth it after only five years

To compare new electric vehicles and used combustion engines, the experts analyzed the annual emissions over an average total driving distance of 13,750 kilometers. Electric cars were supposed to consume an average of 21 kilowatt hours of electricity every 100 kilometers. The consumption of the gasoline engines was around seven liters of fuel, an extremely moderate consumption. The comparison showed that an electric car turns out to be significantly more environmentally friendly after about 5.2 years.

This effect is reinforced by the fact that the electricity for electric cars in Germany is particularly environmentally friendly. In 2023, the share of renewable energy accounted for 52 percent. What complicates things for combustion engines is that, in addition to C02, they emit other pollutants harmful to the environment and health, such as nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and particles. Also in this case older vehicles have higher values ​​on average.

This exception is more sustainable than an electric car

However, the study did not want to hide one exception. Anyone who uses their old combustion engine less than normal is still more environmentally friendly than a new electric car. The so-called garage cars, which only travel less than 3,000 kilometers a year, are actually more sustainable than new electric cars in average use.

Source: “Buy a new electric car or continue using the old combustion engine? A comparison of climate impact from different accounting perspectives” (Heidelberg Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, 2023)

By Alexander Ruszczynski

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