Do electric cars really help the environment?
President Obama thinks so.
So does Leonardo DiCaprio. And many others.
The argument goes like this:
Regular cars run on gasoline, a fossil fuel
that pumps CO2 straight out of the tailpipe
and into the atmosphere. Electric cars run
on electricity. They don’t burn any gasoline at all.
No gas; no CO2. In fact, electric
cars are often advertised as creating “zero emissions.”
But do they really? Let’s
take a closer look.
First, there’s the energy needed to produce
the car. More than a third of the lifetime
carbon-dioxide emissions from an electric
car comes from the energy used make the car
itself, especially the battery. The mining
of lithium, for instance, is not a green activity.
When an electric car rolls off the production
line, it’s already been responsible for
more than 25,000 pounds of carbon-dioxide
emission. The amount for making a conventional car:
just 16,000 pounds.
But that’s not the end of the CO2 emissions.
Because while it’s true that electric cars
don’t run on gasoline, they do run on electricity,
which, in the US is often produced by another
fossil fuel — coal. As green venture capitalist
Vinod Khosla likes to point out,
“Electric cars are coal-powered cars.”
The most popular electric car, the Nissan
Leaf, over a 90,000-mile lifetime will emit
31 metric tons of CO2, based on emissions
from its production, its electricity consumption
at average U.S. fuel mix and its ultimate
A comparable Mercedes CDI A160 over a similar
lifetime will emit just 3 tons more across
its production, diesel consumption and ultimate
scrapping. The results are similar for a top-line
Tesla, the king of electric cars. It emits
about 44 tons, which is only 5 tons less
than a similar Audi A7 Quattro.
So throughout the full life of an electric
car, it will emit just three to five tons less CO2.
In Europe, on its European Trading
System, it currently costs $7 to cut one ton of CO2.
So the entire climate benefit of an
electric car is about $35. Yet the U.S. federal
government essentially provides electric car
buyers with a subsidy of up to $7,500.
Paying $7,500 for something you could get
for $35 is a very poor deal. And that doesn’t
include the billions more in federal and state
grants, loans and tax write-offs that go directly
to battery and electric-car makers.
The other main benefit from electric cars
is supposed to be lower pollution.
But remember Vinod Khosla’s observation “Electric cars
are coal-powered cars.”
Yes, it might be powered by coal, proponents
will say, but unlike the regular car,
coal plant emissions are far away from the city
centers where most people live and where damage
from air pollution is greatest. However, new
research in Proceedings of the National Academy
of Sciences found that while gasoline cars
pollute closer to home, coal-fired power actually
pollutes more — a lot more. How much more?
Well, the researchers estimate that if the
U.S. has 10% more gasoline cars in 2020, 870
more people will die each year from the additional
air pollution. If the U.S. has 10% more electric
vehicles powered on the average U.S. electricity
mix, 1,617 more people will die every year
from the extra pollution. Twice as many.
But of course electricity from renewables
like solar and wind creates energy for electric
cars without CO2. Won’t the perceived rapid
ramp-up of these renewables make future electric
cars much cleaner? Unfortunately, this is
mostly wishful thinking. Today, the U.S. gets
14% of its electric power from renewables.
In 25 years, Obama’s Energy Information
Administration estimates that number will
have gone up just 3 percentage points to 17%.
Meanwhile, those fossil fuels that generate
65% of U.S. electricity today will still generate
about 64% of it in 2040.
While electric-car owners may cruise around
feeling virtuous, the reality is that the
electric car cuts almost no CO2, costs taxpayers
a fortune, and, surprisingly, generates more
air pollution than traditional gasoline cars.
I’m Bjørn Lomborg, president of the Copenhagen