Today, 99% of the 1.4 billion vehicles on the road are gas-powered. In 2018 alone, our cars, SUVs, motorcycles, buses and trucks collectively spewed out more than 6 billion tonnes of CO2. That was 12.5% of all the greenhouse gas emissions produced that year. 12.5%. That’s a lot.
But what if tomorrow, miraculously, every vehicle sold was a battery electric vehicle? What impact would that have on global emissions?
In this video we’re going to actually do the math – all of the math – to find out. Here we go!
Two columns for you – on the left, all the emissions that come from making and using a gas powered vehicle with an internal combustion engine, or I-C-E vehicle for short. On the right, all the emissions that come from making and using a battery electric vehicle.
The steps in our calculation will include:
Number 1 – emissions associated with gathering the raw materials for the vehicle, all associated supply chains, and the actual assembling of those materials into the vehicle. Let’s call this the manufacturing step.
Number 2 – the emissions that will be created to produce the energy to run the car. These are called well-to-tank emissions because for gas vehicles, the fuel you fill up your tank with was sourced from an oil well. For electric vehicles the ‘well’ is the source of energy to the electric grid which charges the vehicle’s battery, which in turn would be the tank in this metaphor.
And Number 3 – the emissions created during the actual operation of the vehicle. These are called tank to wheel emissions.
To make sure we are producing a fair comparison, we are going to be looking specifically at an average gas-powered passenger car and it’s electric equivalent. And this is a global average, so imagine a very compact and fuel efficient 4-door sedan.
The numbers we are going to show in this video come from transportation statistics and vehicle-life-cycle models published by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Argonne National Laboratory.
So let’s start with manufacturing: what it takes to make the cars.
Here, gas powered vehicles are the clear winner. About 5.1 tonnes of CO2-equivalent are emitted during their manufacture, compared to 9 tonnes of CO2-equivalent for electric vehicles.
The difference comes because an electric vehicle requires about 40% more steel and 65% more aluminum to build the battery-driven propulsion system, plus the specialized metals that make up the battery itself. The larger amount of raw materials needed result in a proportional increase in emissions produced during the mining and refining of those materials.
Andy Stevenson, is the former CFO of electric vehicle recycling company Redwood Materials. And he broke down all that is involved in this step in a conversation with Climate Now.
So starting at the mine, there’s when you’re processing an ore material. The ore material that you’re targeting is a very, very small percentage by math of that original ore material. So typically that whole thing goes through a kind of a mechanical size production process. And then several different types of separation processes to concentrate the metal that you’re targeting at a percentage that’s higher than it is in the original ore. And then. From there, you sort of go into various steps of further refining that and making it into an actual product.
Now that our car is built, let’s drive it.
The emissions we produce are controlled by two factors: first, it’s efficiency – that is, how far can it go on one unit of gas or electric energy, and second, the total number of miles that it drives in its lifetime.
An average gas-powered passenger car has an efficiency of about 33 miles per gallon. To put that in metric units, you would need 71 milliliters of gas to drive one kilometer in your internal combustion car. And the process of pumping, refining and transporting those 71 milliliters of gas from an underground oil reservoir to your gas tank will release about 43 grams of carbon dioxide-equivalent. These are your well-to-tank emissions.
To drive one kilometer in an electric vehicle will require about 0.17 kilowatt hours of electricity. And given the current global mix of energy sources used to provide electricity to the grid, producing that much electricity releases about 130 grams of CO2-equivalent.
Now, to get to total vehicle well-to-tank emissions, we need to multiply those numbers by how far a car will drive over its lifetime, which is on average, about 242 thousand kilometers. For a gas-powered vehicle, that results in about 10.4 tonnes of CO2 emissions. For electric vehicle’s it’s about 31.5 tonnes.
I know, I know – it looks like the internal combustion engines are winning, and by now you are starting to trust all of those ‘are EVs really that great?’ headlines.
BUT, cars with internal combustion engines still have tank-to-wheel emissions. For our average efficiency gas-powered car, what comes out of the tailpipe adds up to 37.3 tonnes of CO2 equivalent emitted over a car’s lifetime. For EVs, tank-to-wheel emissions are a big, fat, wonderful ZERO.
And because of that zero, greenhouse gas emissions from electric vehicles over the lifetime of the car are less than emissions from gas powered vehicles. Going electric is the best option, EVEN with the higher indirect emissions.
You might be thinking right about now, ‘But wait – aren’t there also cars that run on hydrogen? What about those? It turns out that emissions-wise, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have almost the same efficiency as electric vehicles, BUT they are WAY more expensive today.
So, hydrogen probably won’t be a leading solution for passenger vehicles any time soon, although the story might be different for freight trucks and other hard to decarbonize industries. You can find out more in our video exploring the potential of hydrogen fuel technology.
Let’s go back to the results of our calculation.
Now, when our goal is to reach a global economy that is producing net-zero emissions by 2050, the idea that going electric only produces a 20% decrease in the global emissions from passenger vehicles is a little disheartening.
But that 20% is not the end of the story.
You will recall that one of the inputs to our calculation was the carbon intensity of the electricity grid – a measure of how much CO2 is emitted by the use of the current global mix of energy sources to power the grid. That includes a lot of coal and natural gas.
Renewable sources – like wind, and solar and hydropower – make up only 12% of global electricity production, but that number is growing quickly. The International Energy Agency estimates that with just the implementation of existing climate policies and pledges, by mid-century, well-to-tank vehicle emissions of electric cars will decrease by nearly half. Once we build a grid that is sourced almost entirely from renewable energy, we are looking at a nearly 90% improvement in average vehicle emissions by going electric, with gas-powered vehicles still producing 50.8 tonnes of CO2-equivalent over their lifetime, versus a mere 5.9 tonnes from EVs.
And we can bring those emissions down even more by recycling what is left of your EV when it is time to retire it from the road. The EV recycling industry is still in its infancy, but including recycling into the manufacturing supply chain could further decrease manufacturing emissions by as much as a third by reducing the need to mine and process more raw materials.
Recycling has co-benefits as well.
People are now viewing recycling as a critical way to address potential supply constraints for raw materials for batteries. At the time we started it, it was more like, hey, we are solving the potential environmental problem of like the disposal of batteries. But, of course, there’s all the raw materials that went into making the batteries are still in there. And so if you can actually leverage those as a source of new raw materials, you might be able to have a real, meaningful impact on the cost of batteries themselves.
There is one other lever that we should pull to decarbonize road transportation with EVs, which is getting them on the road as fast as possible. This is because the average car on the road today is 12 years old! That means that even if tomorrow every new car sold were electric, it would still take 25 years to fully replace the global fleet of almost entirely gas-powered vehicles with electric ones.
And we are far from 100% EV sales.
In 2019, only 1.8% of all new car sales were battery electric vehicles. And that number was 14% higher than the previous year. If the market share of EVs continued to grow by 14% annually, new car sales would be 100% electric by 2050, but only 45% of cars on the road would be electric.
If we want the global fleet to be entirely electric by 2050, 100% of new cars sales must be electric by 2030.
So, what are the chances that this ramp up would just happen on its own because EVs are fun to drive and people care about climate change? Slim.
The bottom line is that in 2021, the average price for a new OR USED electric vehicle was about 10 thousand US dollars more than the industry average., So even though over a vehicle’s lifetime, EV’s are a money saver relative to their gas-powered counterparts, the high upfront cost has been a major barrier to EV growth in low income communities and nations.
To a degree, this problem is already improving, as battery prices decrease, and manufacturing costs start to break even between EV’s and gas powered cars, which will probably happen by 2024. But EV companies will also need to adjust their marketing approach, as Nathan Ratledge, TomKat Center Graduate Fellow in Sustainable Energy at Stanford University, explains:
You know, we’ve seen a lot of electric vehicle growth in the US and Europe, uh, China, but all those products were designed for those markets, right? So like, um, a hundred thousand dollar Tesla doesn’t really sell well in a low-income country. And so a big thing that we talk about a lot is just not that you have to re-tweak the technology, but that you need to like, just change the product design just slightly to fit the consumer needs.
Low income countries where the main form of transport is a rickshaw or motorcycle have a huge market growth opportunity. EV companies should develop products built for these countries.
In addition to just getting more affordable electric vehicles to market, there is plenty that policy makers can do to incentivize EV adoption:
- First, mandates work. Requiring car companies to systematically reduce total average fleet emissions, or sell a certain number of zero-emission vehicles, directly increases the market share of EVs.
- Second, public transit needs to go electric. Buses, taxis and ride-sharing vehicles travel way more miles annually than personal cars,, and so will have a larger impact on emissions reductions. Additionally, adoption of EVs in public transit demonstrates the technology to hesitant buyers. And, manufacturing fleets of public vehicles can initiate economies of scale that bring down the cost for everyone.
- Third, invest in public charging infrastructure. In 2018, 90% of EV chargers were private home chargers. This won’t work for residents of apartment buildings and condos. The US alone will need about 2.4 million public and workplace charging stations by 2030, up from a little over 200,000 today. That is going to take about 28 billion dollars of investment.
- Fourth, and we keep saying this on Climate Now, a national price on carbon incentivizes drivers to leave their gas-guzzling cars. Norway, for example, has a price on carbon AND taxes internal combustion vehicles. They also lead the world in EV share of new car sales at 65% in 2021.
- Finally, make the upfront costs less onerous. This can be done through waived import taxes and other tax incentives, like rebates, or instituting a low interest rate policy for car loans.
I think a big thing is, and you’ve seen this in solar home systems and microgrid space is reducing import duties. So, um, right now, if you bring a new vehicle into many countries, your tax is quite high and that creates higher real cost. Right? That’s a big thing. Um, two is incentivizing it. Financial incentives are huge for people, right? I mean, we’ve seen this happen a lot in renewable energy space. I think that’s really key. Um, but the third thing is, is I think that, you know, governments need to think about, uh, they can help finance the deployment of these vehicles.
You know, interest rates in a lot of the parts of the world are traditionally high across the whole country. Right. And so if that’s the case, then your vehicle loans are probably gonna be pretty steep too. a lot of that. I would argue it’s a bit of a hangover in the Western perspective. Um, if what you see what FinTech companies are doing and what the solar home system companies have figured out. Is that you can offer lower interest rates. And if people value the product, like guess what they’re going to pay off that interest because they really want to keep the product. Right.
So what is the takeaway of all of this?
For road transportation – we need to go electric. And we need to do it quickly.
And doing so WILL make a meaningful dent in global greenhouse gas emissions, as long as we are building a carbon-free electrical grid at the same time.
Luckily we have some good ideas on how to do that! Check out our videos and podcast conversations on wind energy, carbon capture and storage, nuclear power, and more, as well as our ongoing podcast series on decarbonizing transportation, at ClimateNow.com. And click Subscribe to catch our latest episodes.
Thanks and see you next time.
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