an electric car or a gasoline? This Volvo study wants to settle the controversy once and for all

Who emits the most CO₂, an electric car or a car with an internal combustion engine? It is a recurring question that several studies have tried to answer, some being more controversial than others. Even so, there seems to be some consensus in saying that electric cars they are the best compromise (not a panacea) to make private transportation as environmentally friendly as possible.

a study made by Volvo and recently published brings a new perspective to this difficult-to-answer question. And it is that the position of Volvo to carry out this type of study is unique.

Volvo can compare identical models with internal combustion engine, plug-in hybrids and fully electric, all built on the same platform and in the same factory.

While some compare a Tesla Model 3 With a diesel Mercedes-Benz C-Class, with all the differences that this entails in terms of the carbon footprint of each (different factories in different regions, different materials, diametrically opposite design models), Volvo can afford to compare. apples to apples. It is something almost unheard of in the industry.

The manufacture of an electric car is more polluting than that of a gasoline

Mercedes-Benz factory electric cars

Volvo has taken advantage of the study carried out on the carbon footprint from his Volvo C40 Recharge (an XC40 “coupé”) to compare the carbon footprint of the entire life cycle of each type of XC40, from the raw materials and production processes necessary for its manufacture, through the supply of fuel (from the well to the wheel) and driving along a lifespan of 200,000 km, until its elimination at the end.

And what has Volvo discovered? Building a C40 is a 70% more CO₂ emissions Than to build an XC40 with an internal combustion engine, since both cars are built on the same platform and share many of their parts.

Who emits more CO2 Volvo C40 or XC40 gasoline

If we talk only about materials and components, battery cells aside, the manufacture of a C40 or an XC40 Recharge causes almost 30% more greenhouse gas emissions in the C40 Recharge compared to the XC40 gasoline, due to mainly to the greater use of materials in the C40 Recharge and the greater proportion of aluminum.

Building a C40 involves 70% more emissions than building an XC40 with an internal combustion engine.

Building an electric car emits more CO₂ than making a gasoline car. This means that these electric cars arrive at the dealership having already emitted more CO₂ compared to the gasoline version, which is significantly cheaper, by the way. Now, we must also take into account the car use.

Who emits more CO2 Volvo C40 or XC40 gasoline

Once they start to circulate, the car with an internal combustion engine will emit very little CO₂, while gasoline will continue to emit CO₂ in higher proportions. While the carbon footprint of electric is drastically reduced, that of gasoline is adding more and more CO₂ to the equation.

The point at which an electrician compensates its emissions with its use

Electric car

The point at which the growing CO₂ footprint of the internal combustion engine car exceeds that of the electric vehicle and continues to grow depends on where the electricity is obtained to charge the electric.

Volvo has published three different figures, depending on the global energy mix (in which fossil fuels are abundant), the planned mix in the “EU28” (the current EU, plus the UK) and, finally, a scenario in the one that the energy is totally renewable (of wind type, in particular).

Tesla Supercharger

In the first case of the energy mix, over a life cycle of 200,000 km, the carbon footprint of the electric C40 is lower than that of the internal combustion XC40 from 110,000 km.

According to the EU28 energy mix, it is from 77,000 km that the carbon footprint of the C40 begins to be lower to that of the XC40 gasoline. And in the supposed case of being able to recharge the C40 battery with 100% wind power, the breakeven point would be reached at just 49,000 km.

After 77,000 km traveled, the carbon footprint of the C40 begins to be lower than that of the XC40 gasoline.

That making an electric car emits more greenhouse gases than producing a gasoline or diesel car is no longer disputed by one of the traditional brands that is most in favor of the electric car. At least in terms of communication, because in practice BMW, Renault, Nissan and, of course, Tesla are the ones that have done the most to promote the electric car. Even if it is only for the simple and at the same time risky fact of having put electric cars for sale in a remarkable way many before Volvo.

WLTP and non-EPA cycle, rare earth mining and other critiques of the Volvo study

Who emits more CO2 Volvo C40 or XC40 gasoline

Like all studies, this one can also be criticized. It can be argued, for example, that the breakeven point is actually obtained much earlier than the study indicates. For the calculation of both electricity and gasoline consumption, Volvo has used the data from the WLTP cycle. Using those of the US EPA cycle, more realistic, the breakeven point would arrive earlier.

True, but in this study it is not so much a question of knowing when it happens, but simply of knowing if it happens or not and if so, in what proportion. It is a question of knowing if despite the brutal impact on CO₂ that manufacturing an electric car supposes, it can be compensated later. And yes, you can with relative ease.

Porsche Taycan

Clearly, even with data in favor of the gasoline car (the WLTP cycle is lax in that sense), it is possible to offset the carbon footprint with some ease. On the other hand, it should be remembered that yes, Volvo has taken into account the carbon footprint of E5 gasoline from the well to the wheel.

Of course, variations are possible in this balance point of the electricity depending on its energy mix. It is not the same to charge that car in France (where more than 70% of the energy is nuclear) or Norway, champion of renewable energies (despite being an oil producer), than in countries where the energy is generated by thermal power plants and especially coal.

The worse the energy mix, the later the electric car will be able to offset its initial emissions.

Burning coal for energy is far worse than burning natural gas. Specifically, burning coal emits the double CO₂ than to do it with natural gas. Thus, depending on the energy mix from fossil sources, the point at which the carbon footprint of the electric car begins to be lower than gasoline or diesel can be delayed.

On the other hand, Volvo’s carbon footprint study focuses on, worth the redundancy, on the carbon footprint, on the CO₂ emitted. Greenhouse gases are a problem, but it is not the only threat to our ecosystem.


Lithium and rare earth mining necessary for the manufacture of battery cells for electric cars is not exactly an ecological activity, although it is rarely mentioned. The extraction of these rare earths and other necessary minerals requires huge amounts of water. And those mines are usually in arid areas to top it all.

Reduce the initial carbon footprint of the electric car

Mazda MX-30

Mazda MX-30

Some brands are aware of this. For example, Mazda acknowledges that “with about two-thirds of the world’s electricity generated by the burning of fossil fuels, (…) it is not as simple as creating a fleet of electric vehicles.” It is one of the reasons that his first electric car, the Mazda MX-30, have a low capacity battery compared to other models on the market.

The Mazda MX-30 is satisfied with a 35.5 kWh battery that gives it a WLTP cycle range of just 200 km. But according to Mazda, it makes sense for a product focused on urban use like the MX-30.

Mazda MX-30

Mazda MX-30

Eventually, Mazda will introduce an extended-range version with an onboard rotary engine as a generator for those who need to travel beyond city limits. It is a path that Nissan has also explored with commercial success in Japan with its technology. Nissan e-Power.

Other manufacturers, such as Toyota and Hyundai are also betting on fuel cells and green hydrogenWithout giving up the electric car (Toyota is working on the development of the solid state battery, for example).

Toyota Mirai

Toyota Mirai

Beyond the practical interest that fuel cell vehicles may have in the transport of goods, the reality is that a car or truck of fuel cell needs a much smaller battery, and therefore with a lower carbon footprint and with less materials and rare earths in its interior compared to the 100% electric car battery.

For example, the battery of a Toyota Mirai it is 1.6 kWh, while that of an average electric car varies between 60 and 100 kWh. At an industrial level, more of the same. A truck Hyundai Xcent, like those already circulating in Switzerland, has a 72 kWh battery, while that of a Tesla Semi it is expected to be 500 kWh.

Volvo has given a clear answer to the question of who emits more CO₂ throughout its commercial life, an electric car or a gasoline car. And even with an unfavorable energy mix for electricity and an average consumption favorable to gasoline, the answer is clearly: the gasoline car continues to emit more CO₂.

But that does not mean that the electric car is the panacea, our salvation. It also pollutes, much less in terms of CO₂, and perhaps in another way, although we tend to look the other way. In any case, it is becoming more evident every day that the future of the automobile lies in the electric car, whatever its final form, battery or fuel cell.

In Motorpasión | We tested the Volvo XC40 Recharge: a simple to drive, bright and very surprising electric SUV

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Lenny Li

I started to play with tech since middle school. Smart phones, laptops and gadgets are all about my life. Besides, I am also a big fan of Star War. May the force be with you!

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