The ‘electric cars aren’t green’ myth debunked

Electric cars green myth

It’s time to bust this thing wide open.

‘Electric cars aren’t green’ is a great bit of counter-intuitive headline bait, but it’s bad maths.  This is how the argument goes, again and again…

Electric cars have higher manufacturing emissions than normal cars.  Electric cars also use electricity that has its own footprint.  And put together these two factors are a ‘dirty little secret‘ that negate any climate benefit of electric cars!

No.  Let’s clear this thing up once and for all.

It’s all about the juice

One of the most irritating things about articles discussing electric car emissions is the way it’s always very black and white.  In one corner you have the ‘zero emissions’ brigade and in the other the ‘worse than combustion engine’ crew.

But as ever, real life comes in shades of grey.

The reality is that even after you account for the bigger manufacturing footprint of an electric car it is all about the fuel mix of the power you use, the ‘juice’ if you will.

Using coal powered electricity electric cars do nothing to cut emissions, using natural gas electricity they’re like a top hybrid and using low carbon power they result in less than half the total emissions of the best combustion vehicle, manufacturing included.

In our recent study ‘Shades of Green: Electric Cars’ Carbon Emissions Around the Globe‘ we calculated grid powered electric car emissions in twenty countries. But we actually had data for quite a few more countries we didn’t include.

So let’s break out the data and put this thing to rest.

Mapping electric car emissions

The following map compares the carbon footprint of electric driving using average grid electricity in 40 or so countries.  The actual carbon intensity of electricity you use may differ from the national average for a number of reasons, but it’s a great starting point.

The results are shown in terms of grams of equivalent carbon dioxide per vehicle kilometer (g CO2e/km).  Each estimate includes emissions from vehicle manufacturing, power station combustion, upstream fuel production and grid losses.

The specs are based on a full electric vehicle, similar to a Nissan Leaf, using the 2009 average fuel mix in each country.  For each country vehicle manufacturing emissions are assumed to be 70g CO2e/km, based on a number of studies detailed in the report.

EV emissions by countryClick image to expand

Of the 40 countries covered in this map emissions vary from 70g CO2e/km in hydro loving Paraguay, up to a 370g CO2e/km in heavy coal using India.  The US average is 202g CO2e/km, in China it’s 258g and in Canada 115g.

In Paraguay virtually all the emissions are from vehicle manufacturing, as the power is incredibly low carbon.  Whereas in India the breakdown is 70g for vehicle manufacturing, 200g from power plants, 30g for fuel production and a whopping 70g for grid losses.

The colors in the legend split the countries into five different groups based on carbon intensity.  As you can see, even after vehicle manufacturing is included the carbon intensity of driving an electric car varies 5 fold based on the juice.

For a bit of reference, the average American gasoline vehicle is up at about 300g CO2e/km, while a new hybrid might manage 180g CO2e/km after you include vehicle manufacturing, fuel combustion and fuel production.

Compared to combustion vehicles

Because grams per kilometer is such a funny metric it is nice to convert these results to something more familiar.  Working backwards from the data we can estimate what type of conventional vehicle (if any) would produce similar emissions.

For want of a better phrase lets call this the ‘Emissions equivalent petrol car’.

EV emissions equivalent

Click image to expand.

Now the figures are much easier to get a grip on.

In coal heavy India, China, Australia and South Africa electric cars using grid power are just like typical gasoline vehicles, in the 25-30 MPGUS range.  In the UK, Germany, Japan and Italy they are as good as the best petrol hybrids, in the 45-50 MPGUS range. But in low carbon supply places like France, Brazil, Switzerland and Norway they are in a different league, averaging well beyond 100 MPGUS for equivalent emissions.

It is important to remember that the electricity you get might not match your national average for any number of reasons.  The night time intensity might vary, you might have solar panels or live in a country like the US, where the grid is actually a bunch of separate grids.  For example in Colorado a grid powered electric car is equivalent to about 30 MPGUS, whereas in California it’s up around 70 MPGUS.

For all the comparisons in this map the vehicle manufacturing of a gasoline car is just 40g CO2e/km compared to 70g CO2e/km for the electric vehicle.  This is because we have accounted for both a greater manufacturing footprint and lower lifetime mileage in an electric car.

If you are interested in the detail check out the full report.  It includes a breakdown of all figures, sensitivities to manufacturing, vehicle performance and comparisons to diesel vehicles.

Electric cars are as green as their juice

Critics of electric cars love to talk about manufacturing emissions and putting horses before carts.  But they never seem to offer any better solutions.  If they were waxing lyrical about urban densification, electrified public transport and the joys of bicycles their critiques would ring true, but that’s not what you hear.

Electric cars are relatively new at a commercial scale and are dealing with issues of cost, range and charging speed.  Each of which will be helped by improving batteries.  Despite this they offer enormous hope for reducing carbon emissions, improving local air quality and limiting noise pollution.

Electric cars are far from perfect, and there are plenty of valid ways to critique them.  But let’s not pretend that a gasoline vehicle can compete with an electric car in terms of carbon emissions.  It’s just not a contest.

Give an electric car the right juice and it crushes combustion engines.

 

Download the report here: Shades of Green 

Author’s note: in case you are wondering, I don’t own an electric car. We have an efficient Skoda diesel which is mostly used at weekends with 4 people in it.  My preferred mode of transport is my old dutch bike, which in terms of gCO2e/km trashes all comers (foodprint included).

  • Renu Munasinghe
  • Daniel Duerto

    It doesn’t take a genius to realize the oil industry and coal and natural gas industries are harmful to the earth.

    • Dion Kerfont

      Of course. Just not the way most would have us believe.

  • Sugarsail1

    and of course this discussion is all based on the pseudo science of doomsday global warming and the decree by politicians that CO2 is “bad” and a pollutant instead of essential plant food.

    • anjanson

      and of course we have found a dumb Trump voter! Yay!

      • Sugarsail1

        you wish bro, I haven’t even voted in decades, and I can guarantee my scientific credentials both academically and professionally far exceed yours.

  • Stella S Dominguez

    What about factoring the ecological footprint? Batteries require rare metals obtained by mining processes.

  • TheBigGuy

    Its easier to lie through graphs. Next.

  • jackiedoss

    What about battery disposal? Just curious.

  • Damien

    I just would like to precise some information: 1.3 million electric cars
    around the world in 2015, but they produced more greenhouse gases (GHG)
    than if they were powered by gas or diesel! I analyzed carbon footprint
    data and EV industry figures. Over half of electric cars in the world
    are in the US and in China. Two countries where electricity is mainly
    generated from coal (respectively 40% and 80%). So electric cars produce
    there more carbon than their thermic equivalents. In 2015, electric
    cars produced there 250 000 tons of CO2e more than if they had been
    powered by gas or diesel.

    You can find all the details on my blog : http://damienlinhart.wixsite.com/climatize

    Have a nice day

    Damien

  • Steve Sweet

    Someone somewhere has forgotten to mention the tons of Lithium used in the production of batteries, and the thousands of gallons of Arsenic and Cyanide used in the industry. They still use petro chemicals in the production of the vehicle. No-one yet has a strategy for disposing of the batteries as they expire so no doubt they will be getting buried in caves somewhere waiting to self combust or leak into the planet!

  • Hamilton Hunter

    Looking at buying a specialized vehicle like a metro based EV vehicle. How can i use it for normal trips and use as a SUV or pulling a trailer or any of the normal use of a vehicle? I have found that all EV owners that live outside of a 3-4 mile/day use of a car (most all of them) must have a gasoline powered vehicle for backup to do normal activities that we all do. How does that help the footprint? How can one afford to own what is at best a ‘specialized’ (e.g. EV) vehicle for use when the average commute to work is over half of the distance the EV charge capacity? (never!). Also, is it true that even the best battery/charging systems are about 80-90% efficient? If my batteries need a 10 kw-hr recharge i must put in 12 kw-hrs? Also, reading up on the battery lifetimes, the loss of capacity is about 50% over 5 years of driving 12,000 miles/yr (actual data, not going off of production hype)? If i get only 75 miles per full charge, and a charge takes 10 hrs to deliver, then my car is parked and being charged 1600 hrs (2 full months) of the year! Charging stations are the most non-green parking spot in the world as well. Some even try to use solar charging panels (with footprints as well) as a very poor green solution to using coal or oil fired power plants to charge their vehicle! EVs need much better batteries and much more range, IN COMBINATION with a green central source of electricity like nuclear power before EVs are ready to be prime time and take more of a permanent auto market. They are far far from that. Bio diesel and hydrogen powered vehicles were once thought to be the saving grace, EVs will go the same way. If you want convenience, low cost, low carbon footprint, buy a 65 mile/gallon gas vehicle. And free up the obnoxious waste of parking spaces by privileged EV owners that were subsidized by tax payers in cities. That is atrocious! If you want to go green, then buy a bike and ride in to work those few miles.

  • Adam Michaels

    CO2 generation as a measurement of efficiency is absolutely not what any engineer or even a high school physics student would use to determine the efficiency of a system… especially a well-documented and researched system as combustion and electric motors.

    you say its “bad maths” but there is no mistake that the best way to determine efficiency, in all its complexity as it already is on a permutation basis, would be to take the VERY STANDARD AND INCONTROVERTIBLE PHYSICS considering power in/out, motor load, energy loss, and then you have to account for overall production of materials and maintenance and forecasting in accounting for future production efficiency, etc.

    The physics and the difficulties considering power plant generation, the efficiency of combustion motors and the reaction equations, chemical reactions and thermal dynamics, supply chain management and so many other things can and would occupy a competitive market with real considerations, but CO2 emissions as a determinant would either underdescribe efficiency (because it doesn’t have anything to do with efficiency) or it would be astronomically daisychained through many poorly understood causal relations that would be considered in climate change meteorology.

    In the end, it would be VERY simple (although perhaps time consuming) to find and crunch these numbers and display them on your website in an easily digestible way with sources for reference. I suspect that you won’t be doing that any time soon.

  • Plainsspeak

    What happens to the price of oil, gas and coal in China when America stops using it? You know, China, where they don’t have an EPA and don’t really care if they’re invited to your wine tasting parties?

  • Baddy

    I’d like to thank all of you in these discussions for virtually eliminating my concerns of environmental impact of EV’s . I was a skeptic because main stream media has not bothered to prove or at least entertain comparisons of EV to fuel carbon footprints . Electricity has to come from some the same sources as our gas guzzling vehicles right ? , hence the skepticism . The second part of my concern was around the end of life cycle of EV’s , particularly lithium/ion batteries . I have always been pro clean energy and will now add EV’s to that equation !!

  • JM

    I have a question. It has been stated that charging your E-vehicle is more efficient than using a gas engine. The figures shown for charging the e-vehicle are all straight-forward but do not represent the unused power that continues to be generated even though you are no longer using it…. it is there full time for your convenience. Yes, you pay more per kWh in money to cover the $ cost but my question is; how does the wasted energy that you did not use yet was produced, get accounted for in the real energy total used to charge your e-vehicle?

  • Jang Younghwan

    This is a bad article. Even though the power plant uses fossil fuels, electricity can be distributed at night time by charging EVs. Fossil fuel power plant wastes electricity even though nothing uses electricity by idling, therefore using EVs can eventually reduce usage of fossil fuels.

  • Kicker

    How to battery production and disposal figure into the overall environmental impact?

  • Matthew Richardson

    Read “Lifecycle Analysis Comparison of a Battery Electric
    Vehicle and a Conventional Gasoline Vehicle” for yourself. It’s junk science. Given the wildest energy assumptions with a green thumb on the scale, this study assumes a whopping 180k mile break even point in Co2 emissions between a Leaf and a Versa. A guy who actually managed to get his Leaf over 100k miles says it only has a 36 mile range and that he can’t drive during winter months at all. Electric cars are a scam. I want to sue Nissan for false advertising (i.e. “Zero Emission”). The Versa is half the cost of a Leaf, and tax dollars help people buy the Leaf. The Versa will easily last 250k miles, and will get over 400 miles of range long after the Leaf gets 3-4 battery changes and only 75 miles range.

    • anjanson

      Leaf is old as fuck tech in terms of electric cars, you need to look at Chevy Bolt and Tesla Model 3 and others that come out. None of the people driving Tesla Model S have any issues with too huge range loss or inability to drive in winter. Sure, Model S is not Leaf in terms of cost, but Model 3 will be closer and much better car with much bigger range.
      At the beginning you always pay more to build up technology, R&D and everything, but internal combustion engine is a dead end… You can’t improve much on it, unless you add more complexity to engine and more cost… which then makes it less attractive. With batteries, there still can be huge improvements and they happen each year. In 5 years or so somebody will build a car with 220 mile range and sell it for 18k and you will be able to recharge it in 15 minutes or so… and battery degradation will be minimal. It’s the future, some people just look at trends, at solar panel prices going down and battery price going down, and some just do not see where the world is going.

      • Matthew Richardson

        The first cars were electric. Boats have been electric for a 100 years. The tech hasn’t suffer from lack of evolution. The “better” battery tech gets, the more dangerous it is and the more production seems to pollute the environment. Even China had to tell Musk to mine and make batteries elsewhere due to carbon pollution concerns. Besides batteries having poor performance, they also are heavy. Electric cars use light metal for frames and fenders to shave weight. We’d have to mine and quadruple the aluminum above ground just to make half the cars on the road electric. Terrible for the environment. As for “better” batteries being dangerous, I wouldn’t be surprised if aviation (my industry) makes people put cell phones into flame-proof boxes to board aircraft in the near future. I was on the design teams for the Boeing 787, and the biggest issue the aircraft had was it’s high-tech battery which burst into flames.

  • anjanson

    Many people here talk about how much more energy we will need when all cars are electric, but they fail to take into account that coal is all the time diminishing as the power generation source and renewables are growing thanks to always dropping price of solar panels and wind generators. Transition to electric cars will not happen in one day, but the time all cars are electric, solar powers will be on all the roofs everywhere because they will be built by highly automated robot factories and thrown to us for pennies…
    I would suggest ICE enthusiasts to look at solar panel prices and battery prices year by year and plot the drop in price that has been seen since for decades until say mid 2020s and check how that looks. The thing is that some people, like Elon Musk, can spot trends before everyone else and some can’t see them at all and when they wake up one day in all electric car world, they’ll say ”Well, I told you from the very beginning that BEVs will win.”

    I am not a particularly ”green” person and I would not drive the current Leaf and I do not have money for Model S or X, but I can see the trend clearly. And the trend shows that by mid 2020s it will become increasingly costly to drive ICE vehicle, even if oil price drops to 20 per barrel (which would lead to huge economic and social problems in Russia – another thing we need to take into account thinking about future). It’s just future. You can’t escape from it. All the talk today about battery recycling and battery footprint is bullshit too, because economies of scale still do not work in favour of electric cars. When Tesla produces a million of them a year, they have facilities power by renewable energy and all the newest technology to reduce footprint- it will go down significantly, add to that new materials, increased battery density etc. Leaf (tech from mid 00s) is not how BEVs look today and certainly won’t be how they look in mid 20s)

  • Charles Ciaffone

    The one thing I do not see addressed in this article or in the comments I made it through is the manufacture of the electric vehicle’s battery. My understanding is that the facilities where these are produced have dead zones around them, far more than oil refineries or traditional battery manufacturers. Can you speak to this, because it is one of my greatest concerns with electric cars. Otherwise I am planning to install solar panels on my next house and disconnect as much as possible from fossil, nuclear, and hydroelectric energy, all of which need to be sunset.

  • Angus McIntyre

    From a system design perspective, there is another benefit that net emissions does not touch – centralised energy production and response time to clean technology. Electric vehicles source their joules from the grid. A combustion engine converts raw material to propulsion and electricity right there – hence the emissions.

    So what happens if there is a massive breakthough in large scale energy production? Lets wishfully suggest fusion or Tesla’s renewables plans. These methods are physically massive but quite clean! If a country built a whole bunch and decommissioned its existing plants, all electric vehicles would immediately see the benefit of the cleaner grid. It would take years for the combustion engines to be phased out.

    Conclusion – its beneficial to swap to EVs asap so that we can get the benefit of energy breakthroughs when they happen. Hell, enough panels on your house and you can already cut your home and road emissions.