Yale Study Puts The Kibosh On EV Emissions Myth

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You probably have heard all the rumors lately that EV emissions are greater than the emissions of gasoline-powered cars. Instead of helping to clean up the environment, they are actually making things worse. They use more energy in the manufacturing process, the electricity used to charge their batteries is not as green as people think it is, and the mining necessary to supply all the cobalt, nickel, lithium, and other elements needed to make batteries creates enormous damage to the environment.

To listen to the detractors, who are well-paid shills for the fossil fuel industry, EV emissions are so huge, they make the Alberta tar sands look like a playground for school children by comparison. How can anyone buy an electric car when they are clearly the spawn of the devil and pushing climate killing emissions through the roof?

The answer is found in this saying from Mark Twain: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” Researchers Paul Wolfram and Stephanie Weber of the Yale School of Environment did their own analysis and discovered those claims about EV emissions were simply not true. Their treatise can be found in the journal Nature Communications. “The surprising element was how much lower the emissions of electric vehicles were,” says Weber in a Yale press release. “The supply chain for combustion vehicles is just so dirty that electric vehicles can’t surpass them, even when you factor in indirect emissions.”

Oh, Those Scary EV Emissions!

Don’t try telling that to Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares, who told the European press recently, “Given the current European energy mix, an electric car needs to drive 70,000 kilometres to compensate for the carbon footprint of manufacturing the battery and to start catching up with a light hybrid vehicle, which costs half as much as an EV.” That nonsense got picked up and spread around the world by the mainstream press, who swallowed Tavares lies without a second thought (or any research on their part).

“A major concern about electric vehicles is that the supply chain, including the mining and processing of raw materials and the manufacturing of batteries, is far from clean,” says Yale professor Kenneth Gillingham. “So, if we priced the carbon embodied in these processes, the expectation is electric vehicles would be exorbitantly expensive. It turns out that’s not the case. If you level the playing field by also pricing the carbon in the fossil fuel vehicle supply chain, electric vehicle sales would actually increase.”

The study also considered future technological change, such as decarbonization of the electricity supply, and found this strengthened the result that electric vehicles dominate when indirect supply chain emissions are accounted for. As Bill McKibben pointed out recently, 40% of the emissions associated with fossil fuels are attributable to just moving the stuff from well to refineries to end users.

The research team gathered data using a National Energy Modeling System (NEMS) created by the Energy Information Administration. It models the entire US energy system using detailed information from the current domestic energy system and a forecast of the future of the electric system. Co-author Paul Wolfram completed a life-cycle assessment that provided outputs of indirect emissions, which were then plugged into the NEMS model to see how a carbon tax on these indirect emissions would change the behavior of consumers and manufacturers. Weber assisted in modifying the NEMS code.

According to Wolfram, the study shows that “the elephant in the room is the supply chain of fossil fuel powered vehicles, not that of electric vehicles.” He notes that the faster we switch to electric vehicles, the better — at least in countries with a sufficiently decarbonized electricity supply, like the US.

In a blog post for EVAnnex, Peter McGuthrie writes, “The results suggest what many already assume — that implementing a carbon price could result in an entire phase-out of gas vehicles, speeding up emissions reductions significantly. However, in the past, critics have said that a worldwide switch to EVs would cause high indirect emissions from producing batteries and the use of electricity, while costing a fortune if a carbon tax was to be implemented.”

Comparing Apples To Road Apples

Anthropocene Magazine points out that those who are pointing fingers at electric cars and crying “Shame!” are petrified of applying the same analysis to gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles. In other words, they have deliberately cooked the books to favor their argument (and paymasters). “No transport policies today regulate vehicle emissions along their entire life cycle,” it says. The Yale study is a direct apples to apples comparison. Which would you rather have, the truth or some made up facts brought to you by the oil industry?

This is not to say that making electric cars does not have environmental drawbacks. All manufacturing does. We wrote just yesterday about a nickel mine in Indonesia that may be poisoning the only source of drinking water for a local community with hexavalent chromium. We would be disingenuous to suggest that manufacturing — any manufacturing — creates no waste products and is powered solely by the beating of angel wings.

The authors of the Yale study write, “Fully regulating all emissions, for example through pricing, could significantly change the relative costs of different vehicle propulsion options, such as battery electric vehicles  versus hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles versus internal combustion engine vehicles. Changing costs, in turn, could affect production decisions of vehicle manufacturers, and purchase behaviors of consumers. The potential impact of these relationships is unknown to date because neither model calculations, nor real–world policies, have fully accounted for or priced indirect vehicle emissions.”

The Takeaway

Fossil fuel interests are lying to us just as they have done for the past 60 years or more. They want us to believe that EVs do more environmental damage than cars with infernal combustion engines. The wonder is that anyone believes this load of bollocks, but clearly they do. Carlos Taveras is proof enough of that.

But now, thanks to the researchers at Yale, we have the information we need to counter those lies with actual information. For that, we should be grateful.


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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."

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