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Do Electric Vehicles Cause More Pollution?

World Leaders are Encouraging EV Adoption

Electric vehicle (EV) adoption rates are rising in countries all around the world. In 2018, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a ground-breaking report that outlined how the world had until 2030 to avoid the most severe consequences of climate change. In order to avoid catastrophic storm events, dangerous levels of sea rise, widespread drought and wildfires, and global food shortages, the IPCC highlighted how carbon emissions must be cut by 45 percent from 2010 levels and slashed by 100 percent by 2075. To meet these ambitious climate goals, world leaders have been moving forward with plans to support the widespread adoption of EVs.

As economic forecasts related to EV sales have been predicting a sharp rise in zero-emission vehicles in the coming decades, some critics have questioned whether EVs are actually more environmentally friendly than gas-powered vehicles. The transportation sector makes up the biggest share of carbon emissions in the U.S., which is the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases. At face value, driving an EV has substantial climate benefits over driving a gas-powered vehicle. An EV produces zero tailpipe emissions, while a typical gas-powered vehicle emits around a pound of carbon dioxide per mile of travel (Marcacci, 2018).

Source: Pixabay

Calculating the Carbon Footprint of an EV

Even though EVs don’t produce tailpipe emissions, critics are quick to point out that an EV’s overall carbon footprint is dependent on whether its energy comes from fossil fuels or renewable energy. While fossil fuel advocates have made statements questioning whether EVs that are powered by fossil fuels are actually cleaner than gas-powered cars, new data has cleared up these questions. According to an EV emissions analysis conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), which is a nonprofit science advocacy organization, EVs currently produce substantially less greenhouse gas emissions than cars or trucks powered only by gasoline engines, regardless of where the electricity comes from to power the EVs.

Through the use of power plant emissions data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and transportation emissions data from the Argonne National Laboratory, the UCS analysis concluded that an average EV on the road in America would have the same level or carbon emissions as a gas-powered car that achieves 80 miles per gallon (Marcacci, 2018). This figure has risen from 73 miles per gallon in 2017 and is far greater than the average fuel economy of a gas-powered car available for sale in the U.S., which was approximately 24.7 miles per gallon in 2016. Moreover, emissions from EVs in the U.S. continue to decline on an annual basis as coal-fired power plants close their operations. Therefore, while burning gasoline isn’t expected to get much more efficient, driving a vehicle powered by electricity is expected to continue to gain efficiencies in the coming years.

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Rising Adoption Rates

In 2016, EVs only accounted for about one percent of global annual vehicle sales and just 0.2 percent of all vehicles on the road (Hensley et al, 2018). However, recent economic forecasts by McKinsey & Company predict that by 2030, EVs (including plug-in hybrids and fully battery electric vehicles) could increase to over 20 percent of annual global automotive sales and roughly 35 percent of all vehicle sales in Europe (Hensley et al, 2018). Since the U.S. met an all-time record of 3.17 trillion annual vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in 2016, an increasing number of EVs may offset the carbon emissions from more driving (Marcacci, 2018). As the U.S. surpassed VMT records in 2016, the transportation sector also exceeded power plant greenhouse gas emissions as the sector that released the most carbon into the atmosphere.

At the 2018 Detroit Auto Show, Ford announced an $11 billion pledge to develop 40 electric vehicles in the not-so-distant future. BMW also recently unveiled that it had sold about half a million EVs, while Fiat Chrysler outlined plans to adapt to a massive shift in vehicle fleet electrification. As the big-name car companies have started to implement plans to unseat Tesla as the automotive leader of global EV sales, countries like Norway, India, France, and the United Kingdom have moved forward with plans to ban the sale of internal combustion engines. As these plans are bound to disrupt traditional business models, they have invited a host of new attacks against EVs with the hope that lawmakers will abandon efforts to move forward with their adoption plans.

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Electricity Needed to Make Gasoline

As fossil fuel lobbyists and other critics of the EV revolution have increased targeted campaigns against EV adoption, EV supporters have started to use energy and economic data in defense of EVs. In an interview conducted by Business Insider, Tesla founder Elon Musk made a claim that gasoline refineries use as much electricity as it would take to power all the EVs in the United States. Musk said that the five kilowatts hours of electricity needed to refine one gallon of gasoline could instead provide enough energy needed to propel a Tesla Model S about 20 miles. To evaluate the merit of Elon Musk’s claim that the electricity needed to refine a single gasoline could instead be used to drive a Tesla 20 miles, the Council on Foreign Relations decided to do the math.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science at the Argonne National Laboratory, gasoline refinery efficiency is about 90 percent. Since the energy content of a gallon of gasoline is roughly 132,000 Btu, the Council on Foreign Relations says that 90 percent efficiency equates to 13,000 Btu of energy cost per gallon of gasoline refined, which would be equivalent to four kilowatt hours of electricity. While Elon Musk’s claim was off by one kilowatt hour, data from the Council on Foreign Relations suggests that a significant amount of electricity is needed to refine gasoline. In fact, The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that 47 terawatts of electricity are used annually to produce petroleum projects from 5.3 billion barrels of oil (Levi, 2011). Therefore, this analysis from the Council on Foreign Relations suggests that it may make more sense from an economic and environmental standpoint to reduce gasoline refining and dedicate that electricity towards electric vehicles instead.

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Campaigns Against EVs

It comes as no surprise that the EV industry is becoming the subject of increasing scrutiny from fossil fuel advocates and some major automakers. In addition to the prospect of EVs reducing global oil demand, the long-term trend of higher levels of EV adoption will be incredibly disruptive for auto manufacturer supply chains. Analysis from Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts that EVs will displace upwards of two million barrels of oil a day by 2028 (Randall, 2016). Besides this displacement of petroleum, economists expect EVs to cause hundreds of billions of dollars in supply chain disruption for manufacturing plants involved in developing auto parts for internal combustion engines (Lyons, 2018).

As the oil and gas industry continues to spread doubt about EVs through organizations like the Institute for Energy Research and the American Energy Alliance, which have been funded by the Koch brothers, the main stream media has also started to investigate stories about EV-related pollution. EV emissions are clearly determined by the cleanliness of the electricity that is generated to power the vehicles. While a theoretical all-coal electric grid would cause EVs to emit more carbon emissions than gas-powered vehicles, today’s electric grids are becoming far less reliant on coal and moving towards natural gas and renewable energy. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, there are no electric grids in the U.S. that would making driving with gasoline cleaner than driving with electricity. Therefore, unless the U.S. moves back towards an electric grid that is powered largely by coal, the myth that EVs release more greenhouse gas emissions should be put to rest.

Source: Pixabay

Battery Production Emissions

In addition to the scrutiny about EV-related greenhouse gas emissions, oil and gas industry groups like the Institute for Energy Research and the American Energy Alliance often point to emissions related to battery production as another area where EVs emit more pollution. Numerous studies from the U.S., China, and Europe confirm that producing a standard-sized EV emits more greenhouse gas emissions than the equivalent production of a small gas-powered vehicle (Matousek, 2019). Moreover, a 2015 study conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists revealed that manufacturing a midsize EV would generate roughly 15 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than the process of building a similar internal combustion vehicle. The study also found that a larger EV with a bigger battery could increase the greenhouse gas emissions gap by upwards of 68 percent.

The International Council on Clean Transportation also unveiled similar study results that showed how the production of EVs creates more emissions. The energy needed to produce batteries and extract raw earth materials is the single largest factor that makes battery production so carbon intensive. According to the International Energy Agency, producing an EV contributes twice as much to climate change and uses on average, double the amount of energy needed to produce a gas-powered vehicle (Eckart, 2017). However, it’s vital to look beyond the battery to find the true energy savings of an EV.

An additional study conducted in 2015 by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that an average gas-powered vehicle emits more than double the emissions of EVs over the course of the vehicle lifetimes, even with the larger upfront greenhouse gas emissions from battery production. The study confirmed that gas vehicles could make up the difference in carbon emissions in as little as six to eighteen months of being on the road (Matousek, 2019). Automakers are also moving to make battery production cleaner with Tesla announcing that its Nevada battery factory will be powered entirely by renewable energy. But what about the other battery-related pollution from chemicals and rare earth materials? Studies show that battery recycling programs are becoming much more prevalent, which is reducing the negative environmental effects of batteries.

Source: Pixabay

The Facts

EVs are attracting widespread global interest because of their ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption. While the overall rate of carbon emissions and pollution caused by EVs is a complex topic, the facts show that the life-cycle environmental impacts of EVs are less severe than the impacts caused by international combustion engines. Although there are still some aspects of lithium-ion battery manufacturing that EV makers are working to improve, emissions related to battery manufacturing is quickly paid off in little time when compared to driving a gas-powered vehicle.

Sources

Domm, P. (2018). “Electric vehicles: The little industry that could take a bite out of oil demand.” CNBC.

Eckart, J. (2017). “Batteries can be part of the fight against climate change – if we do these five things.’ World Economic Forum.

Hall, D., & Lutsey, N. (2018). “Effects of battery manufacturing on electric vehicle life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions.” The International Council on Clean Transportation.

Hensley, et al. (2018). “Three Surprising Resource Implications from the Rise of Electric Vehicles.” McKinsey Quarterly: 00475394, 2018, Issue 2

Lesser, J. (2018). “Are electric cars worse for the environment?” Politico.

Levi, M. (2011). “Do Gasoline Based Cars Really Use More Electricity than Electric Vehicles Do?” Council on Foreign Relations.

Lyons, J. (2018). “Critics have it wrong — electric vehicles are better for your health, your wallet and the planet.” The Hill.

Marcacci, S. (2018). “Charging An Electric Vehicle Is Far Cleaner Than Driving On Gasoline, Everywhere In America.” Forbes: Energy Innovation: Policy and Technology.

Matousek, M. (2019). “Electric cars may be the future, but they’re still critically flawed in a key area.” Business Insider.

Randall, T. (2016). “Here’s How Electric Cars Will Cause the Next Oil Crisis.” Bloomberg.

Stewart, J. (2018). “Even More Evidence That Electric Cars Could Save the Planet: The latest data says that in the US, electric cars are indeed cleaner than gas-powered ones—and the gap is widening.” Wired.

U.S. DOE. (2020). “Reducing Pollution with Electric Vehicles.” U.S. Department of Transportation.

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