As California, New York, and other states move to phase out the sale of gasoline-powered cars, public officials routinely echo the Biden Administration’s claim that electric vehicles (EVs) are a “zero emissions” solution that can significantly mitigate the effects of climate change.
Car and energy experts, however, say that there is no such thing as a zero-emissions vehicle: For now and the foreseeable future, the energy required to manufacture and power electric cars will leave a sizable carbon footprint. Few dispute that the complete transition to EVs powered by cleaner electricity from renewable energy sources will have a less dire environmental impact than today’s gas-powered automotive fleet. But that low-carbon landscape exists on a distant horizon filled with obstacles and popular misconceptions.
In the meantime, the growing efforts by governments in this country and abroad to ban people from buying a transportation technology that has shaped modern society for the past century is prompting some electric car advocates to warn against using best-case scenarios to promote unrealistic expectations about the practicalities, costs, and payoffs of EVs.
The upshot: More greenhouse gases are emitted in the manufacture of EVs than by the drilling, refining, smelting, and assembly for gas-powered cars, which means it can take several years of driving an EV before there is any benefit to the climate.
The linchpin of the EV revolution is California’s 100 percent ban on the sale of new gas-powered cars, SUVs, and light trucks, which is scheduled to go into full effect in 2035 and expected to be adopted by other states. California’s mandate includes a phased-in ban on the sale of new hybrids. California will restrict the sale of plug-in hybrids to just 20 percent of total EV sales, a significant cap for low-emissions vehicles that are nearly as popular with environmentally conscious California consumers as all-electric EVs.
Within the past several years, General Motors, Volvo, and other major car makers have vowed to zero out gas-powered cars, amid a growing consensus of European nations, and with China, India, and Canada announcing plans to restrict or ban the sale of cars with gas tanks.
But public demand is lagging, and until that changes, governments will have to incentivize consumers to buy electric cars. The electric car’s biggest disadvantage on greenhouse gas emissions is the production of an EV battery, which requires energy-intensive mining and processing, and generates twice as much carbon emissions as the manufacture of an internal combustion engine. This means that the EV starts off with a bigger carbon footprint than a gasoline-powered car when it rolls off the assembly line and takes time to catch up to a gasoline-powered car.
One of the big unknowns is whether EV batteries will have to be replaced. While the EV industry says battery technology is improving so that degradation is limited, if that assurance proves overly optimistic and auto warranties have to replace expensive battery packs, the new battery would create a second carbon footprint that the EV would have to work off over time, partially erasing the promised greenhouse-gas benefits.
With governments now in the business of mandating electric vehicles, the battery challenge assumes a global scale. The majority of lithium-ion batteries are produced in China, where most electricity comes from coal-burning power plants.
Over time, a typical EV will catch up and outperform gas-powered cars on greenhouse gas reductions, because electric cars are cleaner to drive. But some researchers say that the EV’s emissions benefits are vastly overstated—by 600 percent, according to one study—because the variables used for comparison make an EV look better on paper than it performs in real life.
Many consumers don’t understand the complexity of these analyses and may assume that their electric cars are actually zero emissions, or that what matters most is that EVs are better for the environment and the precise degree is not that important.
EV advocates are optimistic that in the coming decades electric cars will become cleaner as power grids are “decarbonized” and the industrialized world reduces its reliance on CO2-spewing fossil fuels, primarily coal and natural gas. But even as the relative fuel proportions change over time, overall electricity demand is going up, so the total amount of fossil fuels actually burned in the mid-21st century goes down by only about 5 percent, according to EIA estimates. Future greenhouse gas emissions will depend on the number of EVs on the road and how electricity is generated, and those forecasts swing wildly.
The cleaner the car that the EV is replacing, the longer it takes the EV to catch up on CO2 emissions, and the existing gas car in the garage can be optimal because a new gas car comes with a carbon footprint from metals processing and manufacturing.
“It’s long past the time to retire the phrase ‘zero emissions,’” said Tristan Burton, a computational mathematician who co-authored that study. “If you market something as a zero emissions vehicle, then people out there will think it’s really zero emissions.”
Editor’s Note: This article was adapted from a RealClearInvestigations article.