Driving an EV is better for the climate. But that does not mean everyone can have their own. That would make climate problems even worse. Recently, the European Union decided to ban greenhouse gas-emitting cars from 2035 on. But unless we start to deal with transportation in a radically different way, that’s not a good idea. For the time being, a fast switch to driving electric will cause even more CO2 emissions in the short term. The climate can no longer cope with that.
If you look at the lifetime average, EVs are better for the climate than fossil-fueled cars. But building an electric car just creates a lot more carbon emissions. So if you start making lots of extra EVs and don’t take other measures at the same time, that will first cause a big increase in emissions before you can start saving them. And that’s exactly where the problem lies. Climate change is happening so fast that we can’t have these additional emissions.
Just recently an LCA (life cycle analysis) was published that is based on a comparison of real cars. Polestar made an LCA comparison between the Volvo XC 40 gasoline and the electric Polestar 2, both built on the same platform. Earlier calculations were based on more general, theoretical models. Some of the following data originate from it:
- Production and recycling of an EV produce about 10 tons more co2.
- These are recovered over an average of 68000 miles.
- On average, a passenger car in the EU drives about 6800 miles per year.
- Thus savings on CO2 emissions begin after 10 years.
- Approximately 11 million new cars are sold in the EU per year.
- Of these, about 2.3 million will be electric by 2022.
- That will add 23 million tons of co2 this year, and 110 million tons more in 2035.
- Total emissions from 250 million passenger cars and light vans in the EU were 570 million tons of co2 in 2021.
Driving less as an alternative
As opposed to just building more EVs, there is one very simple and effective way to instantly and substantially reduce CO2 emissions. If everyone in the EU will drive 5% less, this will save 28 million tons of CO2 per year. That is more than all of the additional emissions caused by newly built EVs.
It’s not that simple
All the figures mentioned so far are based on verified data. But the total calculation depends on quite a few different factors. To name a few:
- The type of car
The cars being calculated are fairly average in terms of size and power. Large and heavier cars produce (much) more emissions, smaller ones less. There are also big differences in the fuel consumption of EVs, just as with gasoline or diesel cars. Electric does not automatically mean economical as well.
- The power source
Strongly determining the lifetime calculation is the source of the electricity. Does it come from coal or from wind? That makes a world of difference. The calculation assumes the global average mix at the moment. But where you drive matters a lot. In Sweden, emissions from electricity are near 0, whereas in Poland they are over 600 gr/kWh. The EU averages around 250 gr/kWh, and the USA averages around 385 gr/kWh.
- The market
The first electric cars were big and expensive. But they were driven more than average because they were purchased primarily by high-driving business people. That provided a shorter payback period for emissions for that group. As the market expands, the models sold become smaller on average, but are also driven less. That ultimately yields longer payback periods.
Not every new EV replaces a fossil car (indeed, almost none at present). Especially in the first phase of market replacement, it is mostly relatively new cars that are being replaced by electric ones. On average these are more fuel-efficient, so the savings are rather less. Moreover, they still remain on the road for a long time, more than 20 years on average. Lease cars, for example, are automatically replaced after 3 or 4 years. Not every EV is more sustainable than an ICE (internal combustion engine). In the US pickup trucks are extremely popular, but they are also extremely polluting. Even the electric ones emit more over their lifetime than most regular ICE cars. Then there is the topic of the extreme capacity need for batteries, given the weight of around 4 tonnes. But here too, there are big differences between types, like between a Rivian truck and an F150.
It matters a lot where a car is produced, by whom and how. Is it a brand new factory using wind power, or is it in some remote Chinese region where old coal-powered generators provide energy? And when broader sustainability is taken into account, even Tesla does not score too well.
- The complexity of the system
With just the cars, we are not there. A completely new charging infrastructure must be built and additional power generated. In the process, we face shortages that affect all parts of the system. Computer chips are needed in cars, charging stations, the power grid, checkout systems, the robots that build cars, and in the maintenance equipment in garages. And also in the wind turbines and solar farms that must generate the power. Those chips are and will remain scarce for now.
Earth metals are used in electric motors, as well as in (wind) generators. Earth metals are also and will remain scarce, and the sources are also largely in the hands of political opponents.
Overall it takes more power to drive on electricity, but less is available because of shortages in fuel supply for power plants and high prices, but also because of the effects of climate change. Water reservoirs are running dry and power plants cannot be cooled due to low water levels.
There are problems in the distribution grid; capacity is insufficient to connect all new users (and even suppliers such as solar and wind farms).
- Politics and the economy
EVs are expensive to buy and should be cheap to use. But at current power prices, they no longer are. Charging now is sometimes even more expensive than filling up. And due to scarce raw materials and parts, they are becoming even more expensive – if they can be delivered at all. That slows down the flow from production to the user. And all the while, the co2 emitted remains uneconomic, the payback period gets longer and co2 levels in the atmosphere continue to increase.
On top of all that, we depend on China for many sources of raw materials and manufacturing of components, especially batteries. The relationship with that country is becoming increasingly hostile. Moreover, a change in the foreseeable future is not likely. How dangerous it is to depend economically on political opponents we experienced with Russian energy. Will we commit that blunder again?
- The use
The average car is not used 95% of the time. That’s almost 23 hours per twenty-four-hour period. And of that hour in use, it also spends part of it standing still in a traffic jam.
Plugin hybrid cars, which are included in the co2 savings, were supposed to drive on electricity most of the time. In real life, they are hardly ever charged and are bought mainly for tax benefits. So lifetime emissions of this category are much higher because the battery emissions during production are not recovered. On top of that, a hybrid car uses even more fuel on average during fossil operation than a regular fossil model.
Finally, the transport capacity of cars is hardly used: the average occupancy of a car is less than 2 persons, while the capacity is usually 5 persons.
Electric driving is ok, but not everyone should own a car
The solution to almost all the problems and bottlenecks mentioned is as simple as – until now – unimaginable: car sharing, especially in cities.
Car sharing immediately results in a much better co2 balance, lower costs per user, less pressure on infrastructure, lower social costs, and efficient use of resources. This was true, even in the fossil era. In fact, there is hardly a rational and sustainable reason why we should not do it.
Why isn’t it happening?
The forces that have held back efficient car-sharing so far are strong.
Psychology: generations of marketing have primed the image of the car as the ultimate tool of individual freedom; being able to go wherever you want at any time. Moreover, a car reflects your wealth and success: the bigger and more expensive, the more successful you look.
The economy: to make more cars is to make more money. The costs for society can no longer be ignored. But those costs were not – and still are not – fully accounted for in the calculations. Economic growth is still as sacred as it was half a century ago.
Politics: the automobile is an ultimate political revenue model and contributes heavily to government revenues all over the world. You have to come up with a very profitable proposal for politicians to abandon this model. And again, the social costs are still hardly accounted for.
So why do we keep repeating this message?
Because we actually no longer have a choice. Every day it becomes clearer that our certainties are extremely shaky constructs. The pandemic, war, and climate have firmly disrupted our chances for a happy future. The illusionary balloons have been punctured. The pandemic and the war will pass, but the climate will continue to change. That makes any argument strong to save every possible gram of co2 as soon as possible. And worth repeating. So one more time: electric driving too must change radically to be really sustainable.