Electric cars: how they benefit our health and the environment

Marcella McEvoy, Specialist Editor, Bupa
Senior Health Content Editor at Bupa UK
10 January 2023
Next review due January 2026

In the last few years, have you noticed an increase in the number of electric cars on our roads? The UK government wants to reach ‘net zero’ carbon emissions by 2050. The switch to electric vehicles is an important part of reaching this goal. I caught up with Anthony Flatt, Energy Manager at Bupa UK, who explains why electrical cars are good for the environment, and your health.

electric car being charged

What is meant by electric vehicles?

Let’s start with looking at the main types of electric cars. Electric cars include the following.

  • Battery electric vehicle (BEV). This is a vehicle that runs on a battery-powered electric motor. They need to be recharged often from a charge point or normal socket.
  • Plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV). This uses a battery-powered electric motor, with a petrol or diesel-powered engine. You plug it into a battery charge point to charge. The vehicle switches to petrol or diesel once the battery runs out. This is usually after around 40 miles.
  • Hybrid electric vehicle (HEV). These are sometimes called a self-charging hybrid, or a hybrid. They also combine a battery and petrol or diesel engine. But you don’t plug it in to charge. Instead, the battery charges when you run the engine. The electric charge will only last for about a couple of miles without petrol or diesel.

You may also hear the term ‘mild hybrid electric vehicle’ (MHEV). These aren’t completely electric vehicles. They have a small battery, which is designed to improve the way the car is run. But they completely rely on a petrol or diesel engine.

The number of people using electric cars has risen sharply in recent years. Around 1 in 7 new cars registered in 2021 were either fully battery-powered or PHEV cars. This is four times higher than two years before. The UK government plans to end the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030. So this increase in the number of people using electric cars is expected to continue.

Why are electric cars good for the environment?

Cars that run on petrol or diesel release carbon dioxide, and other gases, into the atmosphere. These are called greenhouse gases. They add to the warming of Earth’s atmosphere and climate change. In fact, petrol and diesel cars are one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gases in the UK.

If you’re able to switch from petrol or diesel cars to electric vehicles, it can be great way to be more sustainable. It can have a positive impact on the environment too. For example, did you know that fully electric vehicles don’t release any gases at all? A hybrid or plug-in hybrid will release some carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The amount released will depend on how much you use the engine. But it will be less than a standard petrol or diesel car. Fewer greenhouse gases has the following positive effects:

  • better air quality in your local area
  • less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere contributing to global warming

Are there negative effects of electric cars on the environment?

Electric cars may not emit any greenhouse gases directly. But they still rely on fossil fuels (coal and gas). This means they still contribute indirectly to greenhouse gas emissions. They do this in a couple of ways:

  • The electricity they run on is largely produced from fossil fuels.
  • The manufacture of the vehicle uses a lot of energy from fossil fuels. This is especially true for the battery itself.

All these things together are called the vehicle’s lifecycle emissions. Even looking at this, electric cars come out much better than petrol and diesel cars. It’s estimated that a typical battery electric car will only have a third of the lifecycle emissions of a comparable petrol car. The benefits of electric cars are greater if electricity comes from renewable resources, like wind, water or solar power.

What are the health benefits of electric cars?

Switching to electric cars could have several health benefits too. Car emissions include nitrogen oxides, fine particles and other compounds. These are a major part of air pollution. The problem is worse in built-up, densely-populated areas with busy roads and lots of traffic.

Air pollution from cars is linked to a wide range of health problems. These include respiratory conditions, such as:

  • wheezing and coughing
  • asthma attacks
  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • lung cancer

Switching to electric cars means fewer car emissions. And that means better air quality and lower health risks.

Other things to consider with electrical cars

Things that can put people off buying an electric car include cost and practicalities of charging the car. But there are often ways to overcome these challenges and things are improving all the time.

  • Electric cars can be more expensive than petrol or diesel cars. But more affordable options are becoming available. You could also look into leasing options if you can’t afford to buy a new car. Electricity costs less than petrol or diesel, so running costs are generally cheaper.
  • You may also need to consider the cost of fitting a charger at your home. It’s possible to use a standard plug point. But if you’re regularly charging at home, a dedicated charger outside your property will be more practical.
  • If you don’t have a driveway or outside space, charging at home will be difficult. The long-term aim is to have local, on-street charging points. But this is happening very slowly. You may find charging points at local hubs, petrol stations, supermarkets and motorway service stations.
  • You may be concerned about running out of charge when you’re driving, especially if it’s a long journey. Plan ahead using tools such as the Car Wow map to find where chargers are located on your route. With hundreds of new public charge points being added to the UK roads every month, availability is growing rapidly.

At Bupa, we're supporting the health of our planet. We've committed to a wide range of ambitious sustainability measures - partly because it's the right thing to do, but also because we know that the environment is closely linked to our physical and mental health.

Marcella McEvoy, Specialist Editor, Bupa
Marcella McEvoy
Senior Health Content Editor at Bupa UK

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