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 are a “zero emissions” solution that can significantly mitigate the effects of climate change.
Car and energy experts, however, say 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. In some cases hybrids can be cleaner alternatives in states that depend on coal to generate electricity, and some suggest that it may be too rash to write off all internal combustion vehicles just yet.
“I have a friend who drives a Kia he’s had for about 15 years,” said Ashley Nunes, a research fellow at Harvard Law School.
“He called me and said, ‘Hey, I’m thinking of buying a Tesla. What do you think?’”
“I said, ‘If you care about the environment, keep the Kia,’” Nunes said.
Nunes’ advice points to the subtle complexities and numerous variables that challenge the reassuringly simple yet overstated promise of electric vehicles. 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 that’s booby-trapped 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.
Adding up the environmental costs and benefits of electric cars requires complex computer modeling to calculate an EV’s lifetime carbon footprint, which depends on a host of assumptions and inputs. The cradle-to-grave analysis must factor in industrial processing, refining, manufacturing, recycling, and electricity generation. 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% 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, which only recently were considered technological marvels. California will restrict the sale of plug-in hybrids to just 20% 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. Currently EVs appeal to a narrow demographic: affluent, educated, coastal, and liberal, with the highest enthusiasm among 35- to 45-year-olds, according to research by James Archsmith, who researches energy and environmental economics at the University of Maryland, and his co-authors. Their research concludes that under some scenarios, achieving a 50% market share for EVs in 2035 would require paying subsidies in excess of $30,000 per electric car, totaling in the trillions of dollars, and that achieving more modest penetration targets could cost public treasuries in the hundreds of billions of dollars.
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.
The process of mining critical minerals is sometimes described in language that evokes strip mining and fracking, an inconvenient truth that is beginning to attract notice. “Electric cars and renewable energy may not be as green as they appear,” a 2021 New York Times article noted. “Production of raw materials like lithium, cobalt and nickel that are essential to these technologies are often ruinous to land, water, wildlife and people.” The Times has also warned that with global demand for electric vehicles projected to grow sixfold by 2030, “the dirty origins of this otherwise promising green industry have become a looming crisis.”
To address this disquieting dependency on a foreign power, the United States and other nations are seeking to break China’s near-monopoly on battery production. The Inflation Reduction Act states that under a phase-in starting in 2024, EVs with battery components or critical minerals sourced from “a foreign entity of concern,” which includes China, can’t qualify for the maximum allowable tax credit of $7,500. The United States is pumping in more than $100 billion to create an entire industry in this country. Just last week, President Biden announced the American Battery Materials Initiative, awarding more than $2.8 billion for 20 battery manufacturing and processing plants to develop and produce domestic lithium, graphite, nickel, silicon oxide, plus critical components and facilities.
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 the amount of mileage that must be driven for the EV to break even on CO2 emissions depends on a host of assumptions and variables. Some researchers say that the EV’s emissions benefits are vastly overstated – by 600%, according to one study – because the variables used for comparison make an EV look better on paper than it performs in real-life situations.
All of these CO2 metrics could come into play in the Securities and Exchange Commission’s recently proposed rule that would require publicly traded companies to disclose the greenhouse gas emissions they produce directly, as well emissions produced indirectly through their supply chains around the world. While the implications aren’t clear yet, the new rule could standardize CO2 disclosures and transparency on EV carbon impacts, but some say that such calculations are nearly impossible for global contractors, and automakers would have to rely on the same kinds of estimates and modeling that are used now. Echoing a common concern, EV battery maker Nikola Corp. told the SEC that “some climate data is not readily available, complete, or definitive.”
As a result of these uncertainties, many consumers don’t understand the complexity of these analyses and may assume that their electric cars are literally zero-emissions, or that what matters most is that EVs are better for the environment and the precise degree is not that important.
Zeb Hallock, president of Tesla Owners Club of NC Triangle in Raleigh, said in an email exchange that he and his wife both drive Teslas, a Model S that replaced a Nissan 350Z in 2014 and a Model 3 that replaced a Toyota Prius in 2018. The Hallocks’ Teslas are charged at home at a cost that he estimates is equivalent to paying 47 cents for a gallon of gasoline. He said by email that the public supercharger network “in some areas of the country can rival the cost of gasoline,” but this is not a concern because the Hallocks do most of their charging at home.
When asked about the greenhouse gas deficit of electric cars, Hallock speculated that most EV owners believe the carbon footprint of an EV is minimal and they don’t think much about it. “A small number of owners don’t care at all about environmental benefits and purchased a Tesla for the superior performance and the fact that it’s American made and uses cheap domestic fuel,” he said.
EVs: Centerpiece of the Agenda
But in the universe of climate activism, purported environmental benefits make EVs the international centerpiece of meeting the 2015 Paris Climate Accords to limit the rise of global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, compared with preindustrial levels. Transportation is the single largest source of greenhouse gases in the United States, accounting for more than a quarter of all CO2 emissions, and more than half of those emissions come from passenger cars, pickup trucks and SUVs that are now being slated for replacement by electric vehicles.
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. Exactly how much cleaner is not easy to pinpoint. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, about 60% of the nation’s electricity was generated from coal and gas in 2021. In its Annual Energy Outlook, the agency projects those two fossil fuels will generate 44% of U.S. electricity by 2050.
But those percentages can be misleading. 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%, 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 EIA forecasts a mere 18.9 million EVs on U.S. roads in 2050, which is very conservative compared with advocacy group EVAdoption’s prediction of more than 25 million EVs on U.S. roads by 2030, only eight years away. BloombergNEF forecasts 125 million EVs on U.S. roads in 2040, up from 1.61 million at the end of last year, which would constitute about half the cars in this country.
“They’re making these forecasts that are basically licking your finger and sticking it up in the air,” David Rapson, a professor of energy economics at the University of California, Davis, who analyzes electric vehicle policy, said about California forecasts, which also applies more broadly. “Nobody knows what’s going to happen.”
Weaning the country to an alternative power source is an experiment that will pose a host of logistical and environmental challenges. One challenge will be installing nearly 1.2 million public and 28 private public charging stations by 2030 to accommodate the explosion of EVs to more than 48 million vehicles projected in eight years, according to McKinsey & Co. That projection would be partly covered by the 500,000 public chargers funded by $7.5 billion in the recently passed federal Inflation Reduction Act. It could also require building power plants and renewable generating projects at a truly colossal scale, not factored into EVs’ carbon footprint. One estimate places the demand at 1,700 terawatt-hours per year, or 41% of the U.S. electrical generating capacity, to meet a surge in use if there’s a complete transition and the United States has 350 million electric cars.
That power demand will be acutely felt in California, where, just days after the California Air Resources Board decreed the phaseout of internal-combustion cars, the state narrowly averted rolling blackouts during a record heat wave and the California Independent System Operator urged residents to cut back power usage by, among other things, avoiding charging their electric cars during times of peak energy demand. RealClearInvestigations has reported that California’s grid is straining under the load, while The New York Times reported that California faces “the threat of rolling blackouts for years to come,” a consequence of the state’s increasing reliance on solar power and wind farms that make for unpredictable electricity production and render California dependent on importing emergency electricity from neighboring states.
“To think that we are going to completely eliminate these by far dominant sources of energy and transportation services in our economy in the next 13 years is a fairy tale,” said Rapson, who has authored papers challenging optimistic projections.
“They want to articulate a vision of hope and ambition that is pushing society towards a solution to climate change,” Rapson said. “That vision is going to run into massive constraints.”
Rapson, who believes the state’s unrealistic goals will still advance EV adoption even if they fall short of their targets, said the California Air Resources Board regulations come with a huge loophole: In their current form they don’t prevent the buying and selling of used cars, and they don’t prevent California residents from buying a new gasoline car in another state. The rules could be modified in future years to make it costly to register new cars bought out of state, but in their current form they create an escape valve for citizens who resist electric cars.
Even in the trendsetting auto market of California, which accounts for 40% of all EV purchases in this country, EVs accounted for only 12.5% of all car sales last year, and represent less than 2% of all the cars in the state, indicating that gasoline automobiles remain more popular. Banning the sale of new gas-powered cars “will likely be a boon to that industry and to used-car dealers in the state,” predicts James Sallee, an energy economist at UC-Berkeley.
He predicts that California’s mandate will only make gasoline vehicles more valuable, as people hold on to them and extend their lifetimes through care and maintenance, the unintended consequence of government policy making something scarce.
California Air Resources Board regulations would fine automakers $20,000 for each combustion engine car sold in violation of the restrictions, but residents could get around the EV mandate by buying used gasoline cars in the state and new gasoline cars out of state, unless California tightens its regulations to disincentivize its residents from buying the cars they prefer to own.
“As currently constructed,” Sallee wrote, “California residents would be free to import ICE [internal combustion engine] vehicles from out of state, even after the mandate is fully phased in.”
Despite the skeptical outlook of some EV researchers, the general tone of EV advocates is marked by enthusiasm and optimism. According to David Reichmuth, a senior engineer in the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Clean Transportation Program, the motives of EV critics are often tainted: “Some of the opposition will come from auto companies that want to delay the transition to electric vehicles, but others will be from fossil fuel interests or climate deniers.”
In his blog, Reichmuth noted: “The important thing is that you know that this is familiar and worn-out disinformation, designed to sow doubt and confusion.”
“There’s some questions about how quickly can we get there, and there’s a lot of details that will get worked out,” Reichmuth said in phone interview.
“But if you look at the big picture – if the [auto] industry says that’s where we’re going, if the climate science says that’s where we need to go, and you look at other countries around the world that are going in the same direction, too – it does seem really likely that we can make this work.”
Despite the obstacles, the Union of Concerned Scientists predicts that California’s new EV regulations will result in about half the cars in the state in 2035 being “zero-emission” models, increasing to nearly 90% of cars on California roads by 2045.
The Union’s analysis undercuts its claim of zero emissions. Running the numbers on the mileage it takes for an EV to become cleaner than a new gasoline sedan in terms of burning off its CO2 deficit and pulling ahead in greenhouse gas reductions, the organization determined this summer that an EV’s break-even point is 21,300 miles, or 22 months, based on average annual driving. For pickup trucks, the EV pickup pulls ahead at 17,500 miles, or 17 months, when compared to the average new gasoline pickup truck.
Those calculations are consistent with a Wall Street Journal analysis conducted last year by University of Toronto researchers, who determined that a 2021 Tesla Model 3, with an 82 kWh battery, would have to drive 20,600 miles to break even on greenhouse gas emissions with a 2021 Toyota RAV4 with a 30 mpg rating.
Reuters conducted a similar analysis and got much more favorable results. Reuters last year concluded that a Tesla Model 3 would need to drive just 13,500 miles to exceed the CO2 emissions benefits of a Toyota Corolla. The Reuters analysis crunched the numbers on a Tesla with a 54 kWh battery, considerably smaller than the Tesla power pack in the WSJ analysis, producing less greenhouse gas emissions during mining, processing, and assembly. Still, Reuters noted that in countries like China and Poland, where coal is the primary energy source used to generate electricity, the same Tesla 3 with the smaller battery would have to be driven 78,700 miles to reach carbon parity with the Corolla, showing how much difference a power grid’s fuel mix can make.
Not all studies are that kind to EVs. Some automakers, such as Swedish manufacturers Volvo and Polestar, have run their own numbers based on what they call conservative, precautionary estimates that suggest the payback period even under ideal conditions – 100% renewable wind energy – would be much longer: about 30,000 miles of driving. The payback would be closer to 70,000 miles in parts of the world where the power plant energy mix includes dirty fossil fuels. The expected lifespan of the Swedish cars in these studies is about 125,000 miles, which means that some drivers will reap greenhouse gas benefits for only half their electric vehicle’s expected usage.
One of the least understood factors that determine an EV’s greenhouse gas benefits is the alternative vehicle to which the EV is compared. Some researchers have noted that this “reference vehicle” is often a hypothetical car that gives the EV an illusory advantage.
“To our knowledge, there is not an awareness of the importance of these modeling choices, despite the large implied emission abatement differences,” UC-Davis energy economist Rapson and colleague Erich Muehlegger wrote in a recent paper. They contend that the EV is typically compared to the U.S. “fleet average,” a statistical composite that averages out the fuel efficiency of all cars purchased in a given year, including SUVs and pickup trucks.
But that’s not what happens in real life. Rapson and Muehlegger found that Californians who took advantage of financial incentives to buy Teslas would likely have bought plug-in hybrids or conventional hybrids without the incentive, not an average car or a gas guzzler, and comparing a Tesla to the average car skews the results. They contend that as a result of the sloppy comparison, the CO2 benefits of Teslas are overestimated by 600% in California. That overestimate would be considerably higher in parts of the country where the EVs are charged with less clean electricity derived from a higher mix of fossil fuels.
Cleaner Gasoline Cars
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.
That’s why Nunes, the Harvard Law fellow, advised his friend to keep his Kia. Nunes was comparing the greenhouse gas effects of a new Tesla to a 15-year-old Kia that’s driven only about 4,000 miles a year, and concluded that at that rate it would take his friend more than a decade to burn off the Tesla’s carbon footprint.
According to research by Nunes and others, many EV owners use their electric car as a secondary vehicle, logging fewer miles and requiring more time to break even on CO2 emissions. Comparing four different scenarios, he concluded that the requisite break-even mileage for an EV with an 85 kWh battery is either 28,069 miles or 68,160 miles, and it would take the EV owner between 2.73 and 10.49 years to drive that distance, depending on a variety of circumstances. In all of Nunes’ scenarios, the alternative to buying an EV was either buying a new gasoline car or driving the old gas car.
Another major factor is the CO2 level of the electricity used to power EVs. The U.S. Department of Energy concludes that hybrids are actually cleaner than EVs in six states, but the key to that analysis is that it’s based on combining all the energy sources – such as natural gas, hydropower, wind farms – used to make electricity in those states. Another way of assessing the environmental impact of EVs is to look at the extra demand EVs put on a regional power grid, requiring power generation that comes primarily from fossil fuels. From this perspective, assuming more coal-fired and natural gas-burning electricity added to the grid, hybrids would generate less CO2 than EVs in several dozen states, according to a recent study.
“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.”