Electric cars and hybrid cars create more carbon emissions during their production than standard vehicles. That sheds a different light on the speedy transition to electrical transportation that climate activists advocate.
Electric and hybrid cars create more carbon emissions during their production but are still greener overall, according to a new report. A new report by Ricardo highlights the increasing importance of accounting for whole-life carbon emissions to compare the greenhouse gas emissions of low-carbon vehicles.
Some of the CO2 savings made during the use of low-carbon vehicles are offset by increased emissions caused during their production and to a lesser extent disposal. However, overall electric and hybrid vehicles still have lower carbon footprints than normal cars.
For example, a typical medium-sized family car will create around 24 tonnes of CO2 during its life cycle, while an electric vehicle (EV) will produce around 18 tonnes over its life. For a battery EV, 46% of its total carbon footprint is generated at the factory, before it has traveled a single mile. For a conventional car that is 26%.
Perverse effect: electric cars’ co2 emissions first go up
However, an accelerated replacement of fossil fuel-propelled cars by electric ones may lead to a perverse effect. Instead of reducing CO2 emissions in the short term, they will increase. Producing an electric vehicle emits almost twice as much greenhouse gas as a conventional one. It takes several years, depending on the annual mileage, to break even.
The calculation is simple: the extra emissions from production have to be compensated by the savings when operating the vehicle.
But there are complications. When a new car is sold, the old one usually enters the used car market and remains in use. At the end of the line, some 5% of cars are scrapped annually, much less than new car production. And new conventional cars emit considerably less during operation than older ones, which decreases the lifetime footprint advantage further. (The carbon footprint of an electric car should be compared to a new, state-of-the-art conventional car of the same size, which it actually replaces. But electric replacements also tend to be larger than the cars they replace.)
On average, we look at some 4 tonnes of extra co2 per electric car produced, which has to be offset by 0.5 tonnes annually of prevented emissions. According to these figures, it would take some 8 years to break even. (Given electric cars run on 100% renewable energy)
What to do?
The automotive industry is taking steps to address this issue of production emissions- the recent announcement by Toyota of a solar array to provide electricity to power the hybrid Auris production facility and wind power at the Nissan Leaf plant are excellent examples of this.
But that will be far too little too late to result in short-term effects. After all, we aim at 2030 for the first results. No electric car sold today will contribute to those under the present conditions.
A key factor is car ownership. Reducing car ownership – especially in cities – and replacing it with electric car sharing, would result in a much more effective reduction of co2 emissions in the short term. It will reduce the need for new car production and take more cars out of circulation. And it will shift from fossil miles to electric miles much faster.
Of course, this is a somewhat radical idea. But the central question is not how to sell as many electric cars as possible, it is how to reduce emissions and save the climate. That does take radical solutions to achieve it. The report does not address that. We do.
The report “Determining the environmental impacts of conventional and alternatively fuelled vehicles through LCA” and its associated documents are available for download from DG Climate Action’s web pages.
More detail about this topic in this update: Why it is not sustainable for everyone to have their own Tesla or Rivian (or any other) EV