Are Electric Cars As Clean As They Sound?

The global competition to win the electric car race is on and so far, China is winning. It was a point not lost on US Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from the coal mining state of West Virginia, during a January Senate hearing on US energy innovations for automobiles.

“I find it interesting that the largest global adopter of electric vehicles in 2016 was China, at 40 percent of global demand for these vehicles,” Manchin said.

He wanted to know what the US could do to catch up, calling China’s advantage “extremely concerning to me in both the economic and national security perspectives.”

Despite abundant attention paid to US electric automaker Tesla Motors, the bulk of the electric car market and supply chain is based in Asia. China has vowed to cap its carbon emissions by 2030—led by a push to quickly transition to electric and hybrid vehicles. 

China is not alone. India has set an ambitious goal of selling only electric vehicles (EVs) by 2030. Thailand is encouraging a national expansion of roadside vehicle charging stations to encourage drivers to buy electric vehicles. Other countries, with the notable exception of the US, have also announced lofty targets for electric vehicles.

Global Shifts Towards Cleaner Energy

China is in the lead—and that has the rest of the world concerned.

“With making the skies of China blue again, China is moving in the direction of clean energy, which will have major implications for all of us, given the sheer size of the Chinese energy markets,” Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, said during another recent Capitol Hill hearing about US energy policy.

The IEA projects that, even as the world’s power needs grow, demand for dirty fossil fuels like coal and oil will slow, mostly driven by China’s massive market size. Renewable energy—wind and solar—is expected to meet 40 percent of the increased energy demand. That is seen as good news in the battle to reduce worldwide carbon emissions tied to worsening climate change. Electric vehicles are expected to be a major part of the solution.

The Rise of Electric Vehicles

While EVs are still a niche product, making up less than 2 percent of new vehicles in China and even less in the US, they are gaining momentum. Tesla is a household name and has passionate followers. All of the major automakers offer EVs. Swedish automaker Volvo has said that in 2019 it will no longer sell cars with engines powered by gas alone. Italian automaker Ferrari has announced its intention to move toward battery-powered engines. Already, nearly a third of the vehicles in Norway run at least partly on electricity.

Worldwide, the number of electric vehicles was projected to have doubled to more than 2 million in 2017, the IEA estimated. That number could reach 70 million by 2025. But manufacturing and powering all those electric vehicles comes at a hefty price.

How Green are EVs?

There has been a wave of doubt about the true environmental benefits of electric vehicles—primarily whether they are as “green” as their advocates tout. One Swedish study pointed out that calculating the true benefits of switching from gas-powered vehicles to electric vehicles is complex. This has given rise to studies examining the “cradle-to-grave” costs of these vehicles.

Research from the Swedish study was used to claim that Tesla and Nissan Leaf battery manufacturing produced as much carbon dioxide as a gas-powered car does in three to eight years. Critics said the study left out one key factor—the environmental cost of extracting and producing the gas. In 2016, Devonshire Research Group reported Tesla batteries are so toxic they have a heavier carbon footprint than traditional vehicles.

But most researchers find that electric vehicles are cleaner than gas-powered cars—and only getting better.

Many electric vehicles have a higher carbon footprint at the time of production, but earn it back as the vehicle is used. Most electric vehicles in the US earn back their emissions’ cost of manufacturing in three months to two years. From there, the savings only grow.  The benefits from electric vehicles also depend on the “cleanliness” of the power grid.

 “We need to work on both sides of the issue,” said Dave Reichmuth, senior engineer with the clean vehicles program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “The ‘green’ issue is not about cars or power grids. It’s about both vehicle efficiency and power-grid efficiency.”

Regional Differences in EV Efficiency

An analysis of life-cycle vehicle emissions by a Belgian group found that driving an electric vehicle in Poland had a different effect on the environment than in Sweden, because Poland’s power grid is far more dependent on coal than Sweden. In Sweden, where renewable energy dominates, driving an electric vehicle produces 85 percent fewer carbon emissions than traditional diesel vehicles. In Poland, the benefit is just 25 percent less. Germany, Spain, and France fell in between. 

Still, electric vehicles account for less than 2 percent of new vehicles sold in Europe, although governments are considering stringent regulations that would speed adoption of electric cars.

In the US, the average electric vehicle’s emission is equal to a gas-powered car that gets 73 miles per gallon (mpg). The average fuel efficiency for cars and light trucks sold in the US is about 24 mpg.

“Electric vehicles are already more efficient and cleaner to drive than gas-powered ones,” Reichmuth said, “and the gap is expected to widen as we move to cleaner sources of energy.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists conducted a study finding regional differences in the efficiency of electric vehicles. In the Pacific Northwest, with abundant hydroelectric power and little coal, battery-powered cars produce emissions equal to 94 mpg for regular cars. In California, it is 87 mpg. In Missouri and parts of the Midwest, it’s 36 mpg, and along the East Coast, it ranged from 47 mpg to 86 mpg.

Cars are “responsible for the bulk of emissions,” Reichmuth said. “So, it’s smart to focus on improving electric vehicle efficiency there.”

Coal is falling out of favor for powering the nation’s power grid. Cleaner natural gas is picking up the slack. Wind and solar, the best renewables, are gaining traction. But, it’s not all good news.

“The problem is oil, which—like the tar sands—is getting dirtier,” Reichmuth said.

What’s Next for China?

China is well-positioned to capitalize on the benefits of electric vehicles. Most of the world’s lithium-ion batteries, which power most electric vehicles, are made there. Six of the 10 largest electric-vehicle companies in the world, including BYD and SAIC, are based there. And the nation is rapidly moving toward energy sources such as solar, wind, and nuclear power reactors.

And China is rapidly rolling out the infrastructure needed to support electric vehicles. Shanghai alone aims to build 210,000 new charging points by 2020.

China already has the world’s largest EV charging network. Its biggest problem for now: not enough electric vehicles. The pumps stand empty 85 percent of the time.

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Citation for this content: American University’s International Relations Online Program