Unpacking The “Electric Cars Aren’t As Green As You Think” Claims

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Volvo has pledged to manufacture only electric cars by 2030. In November of last year, it released a 50-page report that delves in exquisite detail into the total carbon footprint of its cars, the purpose being to allow an honest and transparent analysis of the progress it is making toward its corporate goal of reducing emissions from manufacturing its automobiles by 40% by 2025, compared to the reference year of 2018.

Volvo produces three versions of its 40 series cars — the XC40 powered by a gasoline engine, the XC40 Recharge powered by a battery pack, and the C40 Recharge, a more aerodynamically styled version of the XC40 Recharge. All three are built in the same factory by the same workers using similar parts. That allows Volvo to do a close analysis of the emissions characteristics of each. On page 24 of its study, there is one sentence that has been seized upon by anti-EV provocateurs to as proof that electric cars are not nearly as “green” as people think they are. Here is what it says:

When also including the Li-ion battery modules and Volvo manufacturing, the GHG emissions are nearly 70 per cent higher for the C40 Recharge compared with XC40 ICE.

According to Volvo, its battery electric cars may need to drive 100,000 kilometers or more to offset the emissions associated with building its battery!

We Must Run & Tell The King About Electric Cars!

Well, that is scary news, isn’t it? A major manufacturer is admitting that it may take years of driving before its battery electric vehicles reach the break-even point when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. The answer, of course, is that a person needs to read and understand the entire 50-page report before drawing any conclusions. That someone would be me. Here’s what I found.

First, the calculus used by Volvo says the results depend in large measure on the source of electricity its customers use to charge their vehicles. If they drive in Poland, where 90% of the electricity comes from burning coal, then yes, it will take 100,000 kilometers or more to reach parity with a conventional gasoline-powered car. On the other hand, if the electricity comes from renewable sources such as wind or solar, the crossover point is closer to 50,000 kilometers. The middle scenario, based on the current EU energy mix, is 77,000 kilometers.

“Current” is the operative word. If people would bother to read the Volvo report, they would find that it explicitly states the grid is getting greener as more renewable energy becomes available.

“[T]he increased use of renewable energy sources in the scenarios for the European electricity mix affects the GHG emissions in a positive way, but also…..new policies are needed to meet the climate goals set in the Paris agreement. The most efficient way to reduce GHG emissions are….to change to electricity with much lower carbon intensity, such as wind with an emission factor of only approximately 3 per cent of the emission factor for the current EU-28 mix.

“Scenarios for the European market indicate that the carbon intensity of electricity production may further decrease there. This would mean that there will likely be a continuous reduction of the BEVs carbon footprints even if no active choice of using renewable energy in the use phase is made, although an active choice for renewable electricity gives a much larger positive difference for the climate.”

The company also says internal combustion technology has had over a century to get where it is today. EV technology, on the other hand, is still in its infancy. Improvements in battery technology are happening almost daily. Battery recycling operations are ramping up around the world, which will significantly reduce the need to mine lithium and other natural resources, like nickel and cobalt, that are used to make today’s lithium-ion batteries. When was the last time you heard anyone talking about recycling the components of an internal combustion engine?

In addition, many companies are touting new batteries that use cheap, readily available materials like iron and sulfur. Volvo specifically states, for those who are willing to read more than a single sentence in a 50-page report, that it is working hard to reduce the emissions associated with building its cars and extending that policy to its suppliers.

“Reducing the impact of materials requires more efficient production, increased use of recycled content and more renewable energy in production. Therefore, Volvo Cars is currently exploring the use of fossil free steel in our products, having very low GHG emissions, as well as increasing the share of recycled content.

“The GHG emissions from production of polymers for different plastics are currently also significant. These emissions can be reduced by increasing the use of recycled plastics and bioplastics which in turn also would reduce the emissions of fossil GHGs when incinerated after use. Volvo Cars aims to use at least 25 per cent recycled or bio-based plastics by year 2025 in their products.”

Volvo does say one thing that is curious. It claims part of the reason its electric cars create more emissions in the production phase is because they use more aluminum, yet the charts that accompany the report show the gasoline-powered XC40 has an aluminum content of 34%, while the XC40 Recharge uses 30% aluminum and the C40 Recharge 29%.

The Truth About Electric Cars

In the final paragraph of its report, Volvo says,

“The break-even analysis in the study investigates at what driving distance the carbon footprints of the C40 Recharge become less than the XC40 ICE (E5 petrol) based on alternative electricity mix. It shows that all break-even points for the tested electricity mixes occur within the used total driving distance of 200,000km. After the break-even point the carbon footprint of the C40 Recharge improves linearly compared with the XC40 ICE. The longer the lifetime, the better the relative carbon footprint of the C40 Recharge.

“It should be noted that a BEV sold on a market with carbon intensive electricity production indeed can be charged with electricity from renewable energy, which would decrease the carbon footprint substantially. Furthermore, the results assumed a constant carbon intensity within the alternate electricity mix throughout the vehicle lifetime (which is) likely to overestimate the total carbon footprint at least in Europe.”

The BBC Weighs In

As luck would have it, as I was preparing to write about the Volvo study, my EV news feed popped up with an article on this topic from Science Focus, a service of the BBC.  It says, “At first glance, electric cars can seem like the perfect antidote to petrol and diesel vehicles, whose fumes choke up towns and cities with air pollution. But they can still have detrimental effects on the environment.”

“As far as greenhouse gas emissions are concerned, electric cars are only as green as the energy used to manufacture them and to charge their batteries. However, a recent study by the International Council on Clean Transportation concluded that over their lifetime (including manufacture) electric vehicles are responsible for fewer greenhouse gas emissions than their petrol counterparts.

“But this difference was far greater in some places than in others. In Europe, an electric car generates up to 69 percent less CO2 equivalent per kilometre than a petrol car. However, in India, this figure is 34 percent. The disparity comes down to how electricity is sourced in each country.”

Final Thoughts

All this talk about carbon emissions overlooks one important point. In addition to the carbon dioxide that pours out of the tailpipes of conventional cars, they also spew a cloud of fine particulate matter into the atmosphere. Whether its coal, oil, gasoline, or diesel, fossil fuels create FPM pollution when they are burned. Fine particulates are so small they pass directly into the bloodstream in the lungs and travel to every part of our bodies, from our brains to our livers to our toes. They are found in breast milk and human placentas. They impair cognitive function, make us ill, and make us die sooner than we should. And for this the fossil fuel advocates want to bash electric cars? What is wrong with you people?

The EV revolution has many pieces. It involves better battery technology, more efficient manufacturing, and an expansion of the supply of renewable energy. People who seize on one sentence of a 50-page report to flog their agenda are dishonest idiots. Ignore them. They will soon be irrelevant.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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