Are Electric Cars Really Green?

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Feb 8, 2016

Are electric cars greener than conventional gasoline cars? If so, how much greener? What about the CO2 emissions produced during electric cars' production? And where does the electricity that powers electric cars come from? Environmental economist Bjorn Lomborg, director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, examines how environmentally friendly electric cars really are.

Are electric cars really green? Over the full life of an electric car, it will emit just 3 to 5 tons less CO2 than a gas-powered car.

  • When the CO2 footprint of their production is included, electric cars reduce CO2 emissions by very little compared to gas-powered cars. The Nissan Leaf, one of the most popular electric cars, is estimated to produce 31 metric tons of CO2 over a 90,000-mile lifetime. Over a similar lifespan, a comparable diesel car to the Nissan Leaf, the Mercedes CDI A160, is estimated to produce 34 metric tons of CO2.View Source
  • Electric cars require around 30,000 pounds of CO2 to produce, the equivalent of driving 80,000 miles. Gas-powered cars require just 14,000 pounds of CO2 to produce.View Source
  • Related video: “Is Climate Change Our Biggest Problem?” – Bjorn LomborgView Source
  • Related reading: “Smart Solutions to Climate Change: Comparing Costs and Benefits” – Bjorn LomborgView Source

Electric cars cut almost no CO2, cost taxpayers a fortune, and generate more air pollution because of their reliance on coal power plants.

  • Electric cars produce an average of 6 ounces of CO2 per mile, compared to 12 ounces per mile for non-electric cars. When the fact that charging an electric car requires using fossil fuels to generate energy at power stations, electric cars’ CO2 footprint increases to 15 ounces per mile — 3 ounces more than gas-powered cars.View Source
  • Related video: “Climate Change: What’s So Alarming?” – Bjorn LomborgView Source
  • Related reading: “The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World” – Bjorn LomborgView Source

Producing an electric car requires about twice as many pounds of CO2 as producing a gas-powered car. 

  • Electric cars require around 30,000 pounds of CO2 to produce, the equivalent of driving 80,000 miles. Gas-powered cars require just 14,000 pounds of CO2 to produce.View Source
  • According to research published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology in 2012, approximately half of an electric vehicle’s carbon emissions come from what is required to produce the vehicle.View Source
  • Related video: “The Paris Climate Agreement Won’t Change the Climate” – Bjorn LomborgView Source
  • Related reading: “Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalists Guide to Global Warming” – Bjorn LomborgView Source

Electric cars simply don’t have a long enough life span to be useful in offsetting carbon emissions.

  • Despite producing a rate of CO2 per mile 50% lower than gas-powered cars, electric cars begin their road life with a significantly larger CO2 footprint due to their production. The only way to make up the difference is to drive them for longer periods.View Source
  • However, the batteries in electric cars wear out rather quickly. For example, batteries for the Nissan Leaf are reduced to 75% capacity after 5 years.View Source
  • Because electric cars have shorter ranges, many people purchase them as second cars. However, if their life expectancy is shorter than planned, they will not be able to make up for the heavy CO2 load required in their production and may end up contributing more to CO2 production than their non-electric counterparts.View Source
  • Related reading: “Smart Solutions to Climate Change: Comparing Costs and Benefits” – Bjorn LomborgView Source

The entire climate benefit of an electric car is less than $50. Yet the U.S. government provides tax subsidies of up to $7,500 per car.

  • The U.S. federal government offers tax credits of $2,500 to $7,500 per electric car, yet the total savings from the reduced CO2 emissions of electric cars based on Europe’s standards is miniscule — and by some calculations actually greater than those of gas-powered cars.View Source
  • Electric cars produce an average of 6 ounces of CO2 per mile, compared to 12 ounces per mile for non-electric cars. When the fact that charging an electric car requires using fossil fuels to generate energy at power stations, electric cars’ CO2 footprint increases to 15 ounces per mile — 3 ounces more than gas-powered cars.View Source
  • Related video: “Is Climate Change Our Biggest Problem?” – Bjorn LomborgView Source
  • Related reading: “The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World” – Bjorn LomborgView Source

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 U.S. 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 scrapping.

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 U.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 Consensus Center.

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