Are Electric Cars Really Better for the Environment?

EVs produce fewer emissions overall than their gas-powered counterparts, but there are caveats 

Editor’s note:  This article contains excerpts for a Wall Street Journal.  Their article is much more complete and contains great graphics. I would encourage readers to go to that article. If you subscribe to the Wall Street Journal click here

By Russell Gold, Jessica Kuronen and Elbert Wang

Published March 22, 2021 at 10:00 a.m. ET

Carmakers including General Motors Co. and Volkswagen AG are retooling their companies to make electric vehicles on the premise that their battery-powered motors are cleaner than gas-burning engines.

Are EVs really better for the environment, though? A close look at all the factors shows they are — but it’s a complex answer with some asterisks.

The environmental cost of a car includes both building it and fueling it. That means factoring in emissions associated with oil drilling and power plant smokestacks, as well as from mining metals such as nickel and cobalt that are needed for electric-car batteries.

How quickly the U.S. fleet switches from combustion engines to electric motors will have a huge effect on the country’s overall greenhouse gas emissions. Light-duty vehicles currently contribute 17% of the U.S. total.

To help prevent the global average temperature from rising more than two degrees Celsius, a goal of the Paris Agreement, cumulative U.S. vehicle emissions should be limited to 39 gigatons between 2019 and 2050, according to the University of Toronto researchers.

We looked at four possible scenarios for the future, using the University of Toronto data. In all four, cumulative emissions continue to rise steeply. Two scenarios stay under the 39 gigaton goal—barely. It comes down to reducing gasoline consumption, which has a bigger effect on cumulative emissions than a rise in demand for electricity and minerals with EVs.

SCENARIO 1 — BUSINESS AS USUAL

What happens if gasoline-powered engines continue to dominate for the foreseeable future?

In this scenario, where EVs don’t reach more than 10% of new car sales by 2050, gasoline demand is basically flat.

Emissions from U.S. vehicles would be nearly 49 gigatons, well above the target to stay within Paris Agreement levels.

SCENARIO 2 — HYBRID NATION

What happens if drivers, worried about where they could charge their EVs, flock to hybrids instead?

Gasoline consumption would fall in half and emissions would be lower, but still above the 39 gigatons to stay on target to meet the Paris goals.

SCENARIO 3 — CALIFORNIA DREAMING

What if states push aggressive mandates similar to California, which said last fall that it wanted all new cars sold in the state to be EVs by 2035?

Emissions would drop to 35.4 gigatons—below the two-degree threshold. Electricity use would grow astronomically, as would demand for minerals, but gasoline would shrink to 8% of 2020 levels.

SCENARIO 4 — MIX OF STRATEGIES

What if the U.S. promotes EVs, and also pursues other strategies to reduce emissions, such as improving fuel efficiency, making cars lighter and decreasing miles traveled per person?

Emissions would fall the most. Gas demand would drop. Electricity and minerals demand would rise—but not as sharply as in the California-style scenario.

No matter what kind of engines they run on, cars add to greenhouse gas emissions. But the data show that switching from gas to electric vehicles will make a huge impact.

Consumers making individual choices between cars will make a difference. So will policy decisions made by governments and investments by companies as we drive into the future.

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