Electric Car Emissions: The Numbers Don’t Add Up

The claim that electric cars are “zero emission” vehicles and don’t contribute to climate change is false, says Bjorn Lomborg, director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center in Washington, D.C. That’s because while electric cars don’t emit carbon dioxide on the road, the energy used for their manufacture and continual battery charges come with a high carbon emissions cost, he writes in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece today.

Lomborg cites a 2012 comprehensive life-cycle analysis in Journal of Industrial Ecology that shows almost half the lifetime carbon-dioxide emissions from an electric car comes from the energy used to produce the car, especially the lithium battery.  Lithium mining is far from green, and vehicle batteries require 100 times as much lithium carbonate as a laptop. In contrast, the manufacture of a gas-powered car accounts for 17% of its lifetime carbon-dioxide emissions.

By the time an electric car comes off the production line, it has been responsible for 30,000 pounds of carbon-dioxide emission, and the production of the electric car has already resulted in sizeable emissions—the equivalent of 80,000 miles of travel in the vehicle. About 14,000 pounds of emissions are involved in making a conventional car.

If an electric car is driven 50,000 miles over its lifetime, the huge initial emissions from its manufacture means the car will actually have put more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than a similar-size gas-powered car driven the same number of miles.

That means electric cars have to be driven many miles before they make a positive environmental impact, and that could be difficult since electric cars don’t get that many miles per charge, and those miles are reduced as the battery power fades with time.

Even if an electric car is driven for 90,000 miles and is not recharged with coal-powered electricity, the car will only be responsible for 24% less carbon-dioxide emission than a gas-powered car. Over its entire lifetime, that’s 8.7 tons of carbon dioxide less than the average conventional car.  The current best estimate of the global warming damage of an extra ton of carbon dioxide is about $5.  The most optimistic assessment of carbon dioxide avoided through the best-case scenario of an electric car allows an owner to spare the world about $44 in climate damage.

The real challenge, says Lomborg, is to achieve green energy production that is cheaper than fossil fuel production. That requires heavy investment in green research and development, not in electric car subsidies.

To read the original Wall Street Journal Op-Ed, click here

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