He is the pin-up for the Net Zero cause, established to decarbonise personal transportation and accelerate us all towards a glorious green future.
In fact, under current government plans, electrics will be the only type of new car we’ll be able to buy after 2035. And even before then, in 2030, the sale of purely gasoline or diesel cars will be banned, with hybrids being the only fuel-powered option available.
Earlier this week, Rishi Sunak announced that Tata Motors, which owns Jaguar Land Rover, will invest £4bn in a new electric car battery factory in Somerset to power the incoming EV fleet.
But is the electric car really as green as it seems?
It is true that pure electric cars do not have exhaust pipes, so unlike gasoline and diesel models, they do not spew toxic gases while driving.
Your electric car is not as ecological as you think, since there are hidden ecological traps
But that doesn’t make them ‘zero emission vehicles’, as they are sometimes mistakenly called, far from it.
So where do they really score, and where do they fall, when it comes to their environmental credentials?
How power plant emissions are key
An electric car is only as clean as the electricity used to charge it, and in 2022, the latest year for which official figures are available, Britain was still getting 40.3 percent of its electricity from fossil fuels.
Another 10.6 percent came from ‘thermal renewables’, typically industrial power plants that burn wood chips taken from forests, mostly in the US.
As for genuine renewables (wind, solar and hydro), they accounted for only 30.4 percent of electricity generation. Clearly, the government has a lot of work to do to meet the 2035 deadline to remove fossil fuels from the national grid because we’re still nowhere near solving the intermittency problem: what to do when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.
All possible solutions (mass battery storage or hydrogen production) appear to be incredibly expensive. For now, driving an electric car simply shifts carbon emissions from the roads to distant power plants.
It takes more carbon to make an electric vehicle. . .
An electric car is only as clean as the electricity used to charge it, and in 2022, the latest year for which official figures are available, Britain derived 40.3% of its electricity from fossil fuels (File Image)
Shockingly, manufacturing an electric car typically involves 40 percent more carbon emissions than producing a gasoline or diesel car. This is because vehicle batteries are made up of rare metals that must be laboriously mined in large quantities.
Since manufacturing emissions make up a large part of a vehicle’s ‘whole life’ emissions, electric cars seem significantly less environmentally friendly than they do at first glance.
Various efforts have been made to estimate the ‘lifetime’ emissions of electric cars and to answer the fundamental question: how far do you have to drive before you can truly say that an electric car has fewer lifetime emissions than a gasoline equivalent?
The Argonne National Laboratory in the US estimates that an electric car in Norway, where 96 percent of electricity comes from renewable hydropower, would need to be driven just 8,400 miles before breaking even. But in the US, where 60 percent of power generation is based on fossil fuels, the figure rises to 13,500 miles.
However, if all the electricity used to power a car comes from coal (China and Poland, for example, have a large number of coal-fired power plants), you’d need to drive 78,700 miles before your electric car’s carbon “budget” would break even.
Things are confused by the fact that manufacturing some electric cars involves producing more carbon emissions than others.
A comparison between a Volvo-owned electric Polestar and a Volvo XC40 diesel concluded that manufacturing the former involved 24 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, 70 per cent more than the 14 tonnes of carbon dioxide involved in manufacturing the latter.
This meant that the carbon breakeven point typically occurred around 48,500 miles.
But Volkswagen’s estimates for the carbon break-even point of its electric cars are even higher, with the figure for an e-Golf estimated at 77,000 miles.
Due to their limited range on a full charge, most electric cars are used as small vehicles in towns and cities, so it will take a long time to reach their ‘lifetime’ emissions milestone.
. . . produce more particles. . .
Carbon emissions aren’t everything, even if the government, along with environmental lobby groups like Just Stop Oil, often behave as if they are.
Electric cars have regenerative braking, which involves the motor running in reverse and reduces the role of brake pads. But they’re also heavier than gasoline equivalents, which means more tire wear and more particulate emissions (File Image)
A big pollution problem in cities is PM2.5, particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter, which can penetrate deep into the lungs and have been linked to heart disease. The good news is that PM2.5 pollution has been reduced over the last half century thanks to fewer coal fires and cleaner cars.
But will electric cars help further reduce PM2.5 pollution? There is little hope of that. A study by the consultancy Emissions Analytics concludes that modern gasoline engines are so efficient that they are responsible for only a small proportion of total PM2.5 pollution: almost 2,000 times as much comes from vehicle brakes and tires.
Electric cars have regenerative braking, which involves the motor running in reverse and reduces the role of brake pads. But they’re also heavier than gasoline equivalents, which means more tire wear and more particulate emissions.
A 2020 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development paper found that while lighter electric vehicles emit 11-13% less PM2.5 than their gasoline-powered counterparts, the situation is reversed for heavier cars. They emit between 3 and 8% more PM2.5 than gasoline equivalents.
. . . and cause more pothole damage
According to a recent study using data from the University of Leeds, a typical electric car exerts 2.24 times more stress on the road surface than an equivalent petrol car.
While this may not matter much on highways, which are built with heavier freight vehicles in mind, it is very important on secondary roads.
More stress means more potholes and more damage to bridges, culverts, and other related structures. Not only is there a financial price to pay for this, there are carbon emissions associated with producing asphalt, especially since the tar used to bond the stones comes from oil wells.
The real price of rare metals in electric vehicle batteries
And then there is the issue of rare metal mining. A typical battery requires 8kg of lithium, 35kg of manganese and 6-12kg of cobalt, all of which need to be mined.
There are particular concerns with cobalt, because 60-70 percent of it comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
And 15 percent of the cobalt used in making electric car batteries is produced by up to 200,000 so-called ‘artisanal miners’. This may make them look terribly middle class, but the truth is that they are, in fact, casual workers with few rights and little safety legislation to protect them.
To top it off, many of them are children.
As well as the human cost, there is also an environmental one, although lax monitoring standards in the Democratic Republic of Congo make it difficult to quantify the extent of this.
so what is the answer
If driven enough, electric cars can help reduce carbon emissions, although often they won’t. Light-driving urban runabouts may well be responsible for more carbon emissions than their gasoline-powered counterparts. Even in the most favorable analysis, electric cars are nowhere near zero carbon and won’t be until we have a completely decarbonized electrical grid, as well as decarbonized steel, plastics, and mining industries, and that’s a long way off.
By 2035, when we all have to go electric if we buy a new car, there’s virtually no chance that an electric car will be a genuinely carbon-free form of transportation; however, government policy continues to behave as if it were.
n Ross Clark is the author of Not Zero: How an Irrational Goal Will Make You Impoverished, Help China (and Not Even Save the Planet).