Green cars. Eco-conscious consumers are loving thee, but how much do thy really cost? Let us count thy ways…
This piece started as a look into the purchase costs of green cars. As eco-conscious consumers, we are looking at our gas-guzzling old cars and considering replacing them with spanking new electric-powered vehicles (EVs) that are touted to be great for the environment. The selling point? EVs are said to produce at least 50 percent less harmful carbon emissions, as compared to diesel. But the main hurdle for mass adoption remains to be its prohibitive prices.
However, the electric car revolution is already here. A study of the Consumer Federation of America found that in the United States alone, interest in the purchase of EVs rose from 31 percent in 2015 to 36 percent in 2016. This is only expected to go up as states around the world provide subsidies for the purchase of electric cars. A report noted that in the United Kingdom, the subsidy is as much as GBP 4,500 (about USD $8,500) for a company car along with exemption from the payment of the London congestion tax; in the United States, a subsidy for the purchase of a green car amounts to USD $7,500 federal tax credit and USD $2,500 state tax credit. In Asia, Singapore gives as much as SGD 20,000 (around USD $14,000) rebate, the actual rate depending on the emissions level. China, the world’s worst polluter, is campaigning for the use of electronic vehicles in order to curb pollution.
What’s more, a study from the University of Leeds shows that EVs will actually become cheaper, even without subsidies. James Tate, who conducted the research, said: “We were surprised and encouraged because, as we scale up production, [pure] electric vehicles are going to be becoming cheaper and we expect battery costs are going to fall.”
But, are green cars really worth the hype? Or are there hidden costs? Below I explore the environmental claims made about green vehicles to sort fact from fiction.
Claim #1: Electric cars result in more carbon emissions as compared to regular petrol-powered cars within its lifespan.
Fact: There is data that supports this finding. According to a study of the Trancik Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a Tesla car that is driven in the U.S. Midwest actually pumps out as much as 226 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre. When you compare this to the gas-powered Mitsubishi Mirage, it is surprising to know that the results are much less, clocking in at only 192 grams per kilometre within its lifetime.
But this is due to the size of the vehicle. According to research from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, “larger electric vehicles can have higher lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions than smaller conventional vehicles.”
Categorically, there is no question that when the tailpipe emissions data of an EV versus a non-EV are compared given the same size and range, the electric car will always win, hands down. This is the reason why an EV is considered to have zero emissions. However, the proper measure should always be the big picture — the lifecycle analysis that considers car production, battery manufacturing, power sources used, and how each component of the EV are expected to be recycled at the end of its lifespan. In the same manner, any comparisons made between an EV and a non-EV must also take into consideration not just the mileage but also the sources of petrol, how these are refined, processed and transported or in other words, the total carbon footprint. According to a U.S. Department of Energy report, when all of these are considered, “an electric car like the Tesla Model S has almost four times lower CO2 per mile than an equivalent gas-powered car.”
Claim 2: EVs are powered by dirty electricity anyway so we are just shifting the carbon emissions from the tailpipe to the power source.
Fact: Currently, much of the world’s electricity still comes from coal and natural gas. In the United States alone, fossil fuels account for 62.7 percent of all electricity generated. In the U.S. Midwest, dependence on fossil fuels for energy is pegged at 70 percent. So, if you’re driving a Tesla in the area, you are still contributing to carbon emissions.
It is important to note that there are actions currently addressing this issue. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has promised a shift to renewable sources of energy for the vehicles his company manufactures, noting that supercharger locations will soon be “disconnect(ed) from the electricity grid.” Currently, the company’s Gigafactory is starting a shift to purely wind and solar-powered electricity for its manufacturing process.
The shift to renewable energy sources around the world is also accelerating as states have promised to curb their carbon emissions as part of their obligations under the Paris Agreement. Stratfor forecasts that in 2040, renewable energy sources “could account for as much as one-third of the world’s energy needs.” This is good news for the future of EVs and the environment.
Claim #3: EVs are powered by batteries that contain lithium, and rare earth elements are used in its various parts — the mining of all of these metals have very negative environmental implications.
Fact: Again, this statement is true. EVs, including digital gadgets that most of us use nowadays, contains lithium in its batteries and rare earth elements in various parts of its assembly. The problem is that the mining process for lithium and rare earths can be very destructive. The mining of lithium uses a huge amount of water, about 500,000 gallons per tonne of lithium. Plus, this is being done in areas where there is not enough water to begin with, for example, in Salar de Atacama in Chile. Compounding this is a possibility for the chemicals used in the mining of lithium to leak in the water supply and contaminate it.
Rare earths are also mined and the process of doing so, results in lots of carbon dioxide emissions and the use of toxic chemicals which are harmful to the water and soil.
It is important that all these things are considered when quantifying the environmental cost of electric cars. Fortunately, it seems that for claims #1 and #2 particularly, these are already being addressed. As for claim #3, hopefully continued research and innovations will limit EVs dependence on lithium and rare earth elements.
But with all that said, when you quantify the environmental costs of EVs versus non-EVs, they still come up on top as being the lesser evil. The important thing to think about for now is how to negate its environmental impacts; perhaps by pushing for stricter government standards, carpooling, purchasing only when necessary etc. Or maybe an overall campaign to encourage society to use clean transportation such as bikes, electric powered public transport, among others.
What do you think?