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Lifecycle Emissions of EVs & CO2: Debunking TED Talk Video

By David Waterworth with Paul Wildman

Recently, Paul Wildman, a well-educated friend of mine who also happens to own a Tesla, happened upon a TED talk. He was most concerned that the car he had purchased because it was environmentally friendly might have turned out to be the antithesis of that? So, was more CO2 emitted producing this car than was saved by not using fossil fuels?

My initial reaction was that the video was 2 years old, and as such suffered from out-of-date information. The analysis was also flawed, using false assumptions. I advised my friend to do some research on current data. This article is developed from the notes, primarily via Paul, that we made during our research to scope this question.

Another concern was that TED is a reputable source, and the comments under the video were so negative to EVs. It is a worry that highly intelligent people can be duped. These comments were similar to the reactions I have had from hardcore environmentalists who support planting trees vs buying an EV.

Does an EV emit less CO2* than a ICE vehicle in its respective annualised lifecycle**?

Key insights:

CO2 emissions from battery production and charging with “dirty” electricity is a thing, and a bigger thing than we thought.

Impact of these findings on us? Paul’s Tesla EV will reach the payoff period in 4 years! On the other hand, David drives 30,000 km per year and would reach the break-even “green spot” much sooner. This compares with BEVs which require up to 70,000 km to hit their “green spot,” something that ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicles never hit….

While these findings do qualify the environmental credentials of an EV, they, in the end, validate an EV compared with an ICE vehicle, especially if clean energy is used to charge it and annual use is at least 5,000 km.

In this short article exploring the above question, we are in fact looking at one very important aspect of environmental accounting. Governments have to do so much better in their efforts to combat global warming. Currently, there are no national or global standards on calculating this.

Findings:

EV sustainability compared to ICEV sustainability depends to a large extent on context. For example, if you’re driving an electric car in the US, note that fossil fuels accounted for 60% of the country’s energy production in 2021. In such an instance, you will release more CO2 into the atmosphere than if you’re driving it in Iceland, where you release 0%, because the Icelandic grid runs almost entirely on hydro, geothermal, and solar energy. The good news across the world is electricity grids are moving rapidly towards more renewables.

The “elephant in the room” issue is the battery pack. EV vehicle manufacturing (apart from battery pack) has similar environmental impact as an ICE car, of course, as does disposal. It’s the battery pack that is a differentiator, and battery manufacturing releases CO2.

Summarising:

ICE cars make up about 3 quarters of the CO2 emissions in the transportation sector.

CO2 payoff for the lithium mining and production needed for an EV depends utterly on the power source for charging it, and how much one drives. The typical payoff period is 8,000 km for us here in Australia.

As a side note, ridesharing, robotaxis, etc. provide mutual assistance in reducing the total fleet and thus carbon emissions.

Another thing to consider: Battery packs when 70% effective for EVs are still able to be reused as home battery packs or recycled, with more than 90% of the minerals being recovered. So, while there are notable emissions to produce batteries, down the road, those emissions could be spread across more products or uses. Good luck doing the calculus on that.

Going forward, all car companies are making an effort to be as green as possible, using renewable energy and managing the battery recycling process. Some, like Tesla, are even getting involved in mining processes. However, the FUD persists, and in the strangest places. No matter how many times an argument is refuted, it still exists on the internet.

Disclaimer: Clearly, the issue is a multi-layered and multi-focus one. This means it’s easy to enter the discussion in a way that justifies one’s prejudices (i.e., “EVs are crap” or “EVs will save the planet” or “it’s all too complex and horrible for anyone to know anything definitive about what the real story is”). We tried to be as objective as possible and took one critical environmental accounting indicator, life-cycle CO2 emissions. Then we looked at the research we could find on this.

Endnotes:

* Lifecycle includes extraction; manufacture, including component extraction, processing, manufacture, and recycling (EPMR); use of electricity and petro-fuel (diesel and petroleum).

** Clearly, our question for this piece is “only” about CO2, not about O3 pollution and depletion of rare earths, etc., etc. Therefore, the question is open to critique. However, CO2 is a key pollutant causing global warming, and thus to our minds, justifies this focused inquiry.

Also see: Effects of battery manufacturing on electric vehicle life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions from the International Council on Clean Transportation.

For more on our reaction to electric vehicle FUD, see here.

Dr Paul Wildman is a retired crafter and academic. He was director of the Queensland Apprenticeship system for several years in the early 1990s and is enthusiastic about demonstrating the importance of craft, peer-to-peer manufacturing, collaboration, and “our commons” in social, economic, and technological innovations such as EVs. Paul is long on Tesla [TSLA] and trying to prove a fox terrier can be trained. See Paul’s crafter podcasts here.

 
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David Waterworth is a retired teacher who divides his time between looking after his grandchildren and trying to make sure they have a planet to live on. He is long on Tesla [NASDAQ:TSLA].

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