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The Pure Column: Why the internal combustion engine has had its day

December 2nd 2020

Tom McPhail is Pure Electric’s cycling and e-scooting expert, our man with his finger on the pulse of the latest developments in electric transport. In his first blog post, he explains just how much pollution cars currently cost the planet, and discusses if even electric cars are really the answer.

Did you know that the process of manufacturing a typical Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) car puts between 6 and 10 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere [1]? This is before you've driven it anywhere, and it's a lot, given the average car only weighs around 1.5 tonnes [2]!

Think of it like this: The car parked outside your house has another half a dozen invisible cars stacked up on its roof. Every car drives around with this invisible burden – equivalent to the weight of the carbon dioxide that got pumped into the atmosphere during its manufacture.

The CO2 emissions caused by driving around vary. Vehicle age and type, the type of journey, car maintenance and climactic conditions can all have a significant impact on economy. Short, urban journeys tend to be worse, because of the stop-start nature of traffic. Plus, there’s taking into account the additional impact of getting the fuel out of the ground, processing it, and getting to the car in the first place.

Broadly, it’s fair to say every kilometre of driving an ICE-powered vehicle puts between 100g and 250g of CO2 into the atmosphere [3,4]. This doesn’t sound too bad… until you look at what this does over longer periods. If we assume 150g per kilometre, then based on a fairly modest 10,000km (around 6,200mi) of driving a year, that puts another 1.5 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere every year.

So, every year that car is driving around, with that stack of invisible cars on its roof, the weight of CO2 it has pushed into the atmosphere equates to another car’s weight added to it. That means after 10 years, your typical family car is driving around with the burden of 15 cars’ weight on top of it.

There are a lot of cars on the road in the UK – around 32 million [5] – so inevitably, there are a lot of journeys being made. In total, cars and taxis travelled 278 billion miles in the UK last year [6] alone. This is why when you add it all up, you come to the staggering conclusion that cars and taxis in the UK pushed a combined total of 70 million tonnes of CO2 [7] into the air around us.

This is happening every year.

What about electric cars?

From a manufacturing point of view, electric cars are even worse than their petrol-powered counterparts. CO2 emissions are around 50% higher [1] than an ICE vehicle, at around 14.6 tonnes to manufacture each car.

Once you’ve got your electric car of course, it gets better every year, particularly if the energy being generated to power it comes from renewable sources. Based on current estimates of overall CO2 emissions from electricity production [3], every kilometre driven in an electric car will add around 48g of CO2 into the atmosphere. This is far better than ICE-powered vehicles and will come down in the future, thanks to our gradual shift towards renewable energy production.

At the same time, it’s worth noting that Particulate Matter pollution – the tiny little nasty specs of stuff that turn our buildings black over time – mostly doesn’t come from exhaust pipes. 60% of this stuff caused by vehicles actually comes from a combination of tyres, brake dust and tarmac abrasion [8].

So over time, driving an electric car is definitely an improvement, but still not as good as not driving a car at all, while the very worst thing you could do is to regularly swap out your electric car for a shiny new one every couple of years in search of a more efficient model; the manufacturing impact would mean you’d actually be doing more harm than if you just drove your ICE-powered vehicle for its useful life.

A quick word on air pollution

There are two issues with vehicle air pollution. The one most commonly focused on is ‘Greenhouse Gas’ emissions – principally CO2 and the effect that these have on the global climate. When you stop and consider that just our cars alone in the UK are putting 70 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere, it would be quite surprising if that didn’t have an effect over time.

The other issue is local air pollution and the effect this has on our health. According to Public Health England, every year in this country there are between 28,000 and 36,000 deaths attributable to long term exposure to air pollution [9]. Road traffic is not the only source of air pollution: industry, agriculture, buildings and other transport all contribute [10], however any steps to reduce car-related pollution won’t just improve the health of our climate, it will also improve the health of everyone that lives in this country.

So should we stop driving?

When I started looking into this, I was shocked at how big some of the numbers are. I’d never done the maths or considered what that little ‘150g/km’ vehicle emissions number actually meant. Cars are incredibly useful – in many ways we’ve built our lives around them over the past century.

I own and drive a car. Cars help to drive our economy. But also, cars come with a cost which is adding up over time. In simple terms, we should be looking to minimise our reliance on ICE-powered cars in everyday life, while adopting alternatives in the most sustainable way we can. For some that could mean owning and driving an electric vehicle for the length of its useful life – treating it as an investment rather than a fashion statement – because that’s better than the petrol-powered alternative.

Even better still, whenever you can, don’t drive at all: catch a bus, or walk or ride a bicycle for those shorter journeys you make every day. Or perhaps, try out one of your local electric scooter rental schemes instead?

Interested in reducing your reliance on the internal combustion engine? Explore the possibilities by checking out Pure Electric's range of electric bikes and electric scooters.


Sources
[1] https://doi.org/10.1016/j.egypro.2017.03.827

[2] https://mechanicbase.com/cars/car-weight/

[3] https://www.bikeradar.com/features/long-reads/cycling-environmental-impact/

[4] https://ec.europa.eu/clima/policies/transport/vehicles/cars_en

[5] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/812253/vehicle-licensing-statistics-january-to-march-2019.pdf

[6] https://www.gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets/road-traffic-statistics-tra

[7] https://www.gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets/energy-and-environment-data-tables-env#greenhouse-gas-emissions-env02

[8] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/739460/road-to-zero.pdf

[9] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/public-health-england-publishes-air-pollution-evidence-review#:~:text=Air%20pollution%20is%20the%20biggest,lung%20cancer%2C%20and%20exacerbates%20asthma

[10] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/938623/Review_of_interventions_to_improve_air_quality_March-2019-2018572.pdf

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