“There is at least one truth to every myth. And it takes one truth to create a lie. Lies can be created from truths, but truths cannot be created from lies.” Suzy Kassem
Can it be true that electric vehicles have higher emissions than their internal combustion engine equivalents? Let me put your mind at rest, the answer is no!
The source of nearly all such claims is an article by Buchal et al. and like any good meme it appeals to controversy, conflict and confusion and has been spread far and wide across conventional and social media. However, as much as I want to toss this into the dustbin of non-peer reviewed conspiracy theories, I feel the need to make my case because as a driver, investor and advocate of electric vehicles (EVs), such claims cast doubt on their significant environmental benefits and could slow adoption.
Why are Buchal et al. wrong?
There are many unrealistic assumptions in the Buchal et al. calculations. Primarily, they have used out of date information and suppressed evidence, appealing to a status quo bias in the reader. In contrast, peer reviewed expert researchers such as Hoekstra et. al. have come up with very different conclusions:
The past never changes
There are three technology trends that are developing quickly and each of these continue to reduce the costs and improve the emissions profile of EVs vs internal combustion engines (ICE). These trends are renewable energy, battery technology and EV powertrain efficiency. The year-on-year compounding improvements of these trends means the emissions footprint of EVs are not just better than ICE today, but will continue to improve. In contrast, Buchal et al. use old power generation data from Germany – a country historically highly dependent on coal – and then assume no improvement. Furthermore, Buchal et al. also use best-case-scenario emissions assumptions for diesel. It’s like the VW emissions scandal never happened!
Ignoring inconvenient truths
Roughly five percent of oil emissions occur before it is burned to power a vehicle (i.e. from well to pump). Yet despite the battery supply chain and fuel sources being the focus of EV emissions footprint, oil supply chain emissions are often ignored when calculating the ICE footprint. Buchal et al. also assumed that the total lifetime millage of an EV battery was half that of an ICE, something that is no longer credible given the range and charging cycles demonstrated by Tesla. Furthermore, the average 300k km assumption for diesels is very aggressive as explained here. Whilst both have improved over time, the more immature technology is improving at a much faster rate. Perhaps having only 20 moving parts in the drive-chain is a benefit too?
“Buchal et al. assume the battery becomes the new bottleneck and will be scrapped after 150k km while a diesel would last 300k km. But current batteries are estimated to last at least 1,500 to 3,000 cycles before they lose 20% of capacity, giving an electric car with 450 km of range a battery lifetime of 450k to 1,350k km.” Auke Hoekstra, Eindhoven University of Technology
Blind to the virtuous cycle
Battery material extraction and transportation are the most emission-intensive parts of an EV lifecycle. But why should we assume all batteries are made from 100% newly extracted material? They can be recycled! And what about extending a batteries lifecycle in functions such as home-energy storage? Furthermore, the supply chain is relatively nascent and will become less emissions-intensive over time as cumulative production efficiencies come through. A study by the Swedish Environmental Research Institute (which Buchal et al. used in their assumptions) initially claimed a high emissions footprint for LiOn battery production. This was disputed by many researchers and has recently been updated. The new emissions estimates have been meaningfully reduced.
“That emissions are lower now is mainly due to the fact that battery factories have been scaled up and are running at full capacity, which makes them more efficient per unit produced. We have also taken into account the possibility of using electricity that is virtually fossil-free in several of the production stages” Erik Emilsson, IVL Researcher
The tale of the long tailpipe belongs on the bookshelf alongside Pinocchio. Using conservative assumptions Hoekstra et al. estimated that EV’s produce approximately 60% less emissions than diesels today. Furthermore, EVs have the potential to be 96% cleaner than diesels in a 100% renewable energy world. I will leave the last word to Hoekstra:
“One could imagine a future in which not only the cars themselves but the entire automotive supply chain runs on renewable electricity. Batteries could run mining equipment that retrieves the ore from which batteries, solar panels, and windmills are made. Solar and wind produce hydrogen that (in combination with batteries) makes the production of steel and aluminium almost zero emission, which in turn makes the manufacturing of batteries, cars, solar panels, and wind turbines almost zero emission. Car batteries also absorb excessive solar and wind, stabilize the grid, and reduce the amount of stationary batteries that are needed. It is not an exaggeration to say that in such a scenario, the GHG emissions of batteries could be further reduced by a factor of ten or more.” Auke Hoekstra, Eindhoven University of Technology
P.S – If you have also been confronted by the unlikely assertion that EV street level emissions are higher than ICE because of increased brake and tyre dust (yes I know… it’s desperate) Jon has already dealt with that meme in a previous soapbox, called A Perfectionist Fallacy
Hoekstra: The underestimated Potential of Battery Electric Vehicles to Reduce Emissions
Solar PV additions vs IEA predictions: https://twitter.com/AukeHoekstra
IVL study: https://www.ivl.se/english/startpage/top-menu/pressroom/press-releases/press-releases—arkiv/2019-12-04-new-report-on-climate-impact-of-electric-car-batteries.html
Top 6 EV Trash Talk Errors: https://innovationorigins.com/tomorrow-is-why-german-automobile-club-study-is-the-anti-electric-lobby-at-its-finest/
Video: How Does an EV work?
Stanford Study: https://news.stanford.edu/2018/08/30/measuring-crude-oils-carbon-footprint/
Clean Energy Wire: https://www.cleanenergywire.org/factsheets/germanys-energy-consumption-and-power-mix-charts