By Eric A. Taub
The New York Times
In the 19th century, major cities faced their own emissions problem: horse manure.
With horse-drawn carriages clogging major thoroughfares, cities were burdened with noxious, smelly manure that drew flies and spread disease.
The issue started to resolve itself as internal combustion engine cars grew in popularity at the beginning of the 20th century. Of course, that meant horses, slowly but inexorably, were replaced by vehicles emitting greenhouse gases.
Now, as battery electric vehicles, or BEVs — marketed as a more environmentally friendly vehicular option — replace internal combustion engines, some skeptics are pointing out that they actually have a larger carbon footprint than nonelectric vehicles. That’s due to the manufacturing and disposal of BEVs — specifically their batteries — as well as a reliance on coal to create the electricity that powers them.
To determine the environmental costs of the trade-off, trade organizations and universities have conducted life cycle analyses, or LCAs: comparisons between the amount of greenhouse gases created from the production, use and disposal of a BEV and the gases from a gasolinepowered vehicle of a similar size.
The good news: Studies have found that, though it’s true that the production of a BEV causes more pollution than a gasolinepowered counterpart, this greenhouse-gas emission difference is erased as the vehicle is driven.
And erasing the difference does not appear to take very long. In a study conducted by the University of Michigan (with a grant from the Ford Motor Co.), the pollution equation evens out between 1.4 to 1.5 years for sedans, 1.6 to 1.9 years for SUVs and about 1.6 years for pickup trucks, based on the average number of vehicle miles traveled in the United States.
The study found that, on average, emissions from BEV sedans were 35% of the emissions from an internal-combustion sedan. Electric SUVs produced 37% of the emissions of a gasolinepowered counterpart, and a BEV pickup created 34% of the emissions of an internal combustion model. (Because gasoline-powered pickups consume more fuel than smaller vehicles, switching to a battery electric pickup results in a greater reduction in emissions.)
These results vary, based on how much greenhouse gas is created through the production of the electricity needed to charge a battery. The greater the use of renewable sources — such as wind, solar, nuclear and hydropower — the greater the reduction in emissions.
Of the more than 3,000 counties in the United States, 78 had increased overall emissions from electric sedans than from internal combustion vehicles — a result attributable to the fact that, in these counties, most of the electricity was generated from coal, said Greg Keoleian, director of the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan and lead author of the study.
One of the main critiques of BEVs has centered on a reliance on coal to produce the electricity needed to power these vehicles, along with the emissions produced by battery production and the shortness of battery life.
For example, a study conducted at the Leibniz Institute for Economic Research at the University of Munich said that a Mercedes C220 diesel creates less greenhouse gas emissions than does a Tesla Model 3. Michael Kelly, professor emeritus of engineering at Cambridge University, argued that the need to charge electric vehicles would overload the electric grid and could lead to power cuts in Britain. He also believes the world does not have enough raw materials to make the large quantities of batteries needed.
Neither of those statements is accurate, according to Auke Hoekstra, director of energy transition research at the Eindhoven University of Technology. In a paper published in 2020, Hoekstra writes that batteries will most likely last more than 310,000 miles; that research shows gasoline and diesel pollute more than previously thought; and that the energy needed to create batteries has already declined while electricity production from renewable sources is growing.
Keoleian said he expects that electric vehicle emissions will improve, even in those U.S. counties that rely on coal to create power for the vehicles. “In the future, BEV emissions will decrease due to the retirement of coal plants and the increase in renewable energy sources,” he said. “Our message is that we need to accelerate the transition to battery electric vehicles.”
Multiple studies have supported the view that electric vehicles are already the more environmentally friendly choice — and will only become more so as technology progresses.
“The Ford-financed study is 100% correct,” Hoekstra said. “All studies agree that electric vehicles save between 50 to 70% CO2 equivalents and that the time needed to recoup the additional emissions caused by battery production is one to two years. The more you drive, the faster you’ll recoup.”
This January, another study, conducted by Ricardo Strategy Consulting for the Fuels Institute, a nonprofit think tank focusing on transit and fuel, found similar results. In 200,000 miles of driving, a typical internal combustion vehicle would emit 66 tons of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. A battery electric vehicle would emit 39 tons over that same distance. And within 19,000 miles, the higher emissions caused by battery manufacturing would be offset by lower emissions from driving an electric vehicle.
All of the criticisms of BEVs will soon be a thing of the past, said Hoekstra, as battery production becomes cleaner and begins to last the lifetime of a vehicle, while electricity generation moves away from coal.
“There are no countries in the world where BEVs pollute more than internal combustion vehicles,” he said.
“And when it comes to the U.S., there’s no way in hell that the current electrical generating mix will remain as polluting as it is today.”