A new study presented at the ifo Institute in Munich, Germany this week concluded that battery electric vehicles (BEVs) in Europe are ultimately responsible for more emissions than diesel-powered vehicles.
Electric cars are widely considered environmentally friendly because they produce zero tailpipe emissions. If you take a microview at the emissions generated in powering the vehicle, this is true. Review the lifecycle emissions generated in both building and running EVs however, and the ‘zero emissions’ story gets a bit hazy.
Christoph Buchal, professor of physics at the University of Cologne; Hans-Dieter Karl, long-standing ifo energy expert; and Hans-Werner Sinn, former ifo president and professor emeritus at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München concluded in a recent study that “CO2 emissions of battery-electric vehicles are, in the best case, slightly higher than those of a diesel engine, and are otherwise much higher,” according to an ifo post. The ifo Institute is a German organization that bridges academic research and public policy. In this case, ifo is taking a macro view of emissions emitted, but also required for production and fueling of different vehicles.
The research is most concerned with battery electric vehicle(BEV) emissions, which “emit 11% to 28% more than their diesel counterparts,” according to The Brussel Times. What set BEV life cycle emissions numbers over the top compared to those of diesel-powered vehicles is the coal-fired power plants that provide much of Europe with electricity. Once you add in the energy-intensive mining and processing of lithium, cobalt and manganese used in EV batteries, the total lifetime emissions for diesel cars are much lower.
According to the scientists’ calculations every Tesla emits 156 to 180 grams of CO2 per kilometer, which is far more than a Mercedes-Benz diesel engine, for example.
Instead of BEVs, the study promotes the propagation of internal combustion engines that burn natural gas, which the study’s authors claim produce one third the emissions of diesel engines.
While the conclusions of this study may be accurate for European BEVs, the same may not be true for American market BEVs — at least not all.
Currently, around 63.5% of the United States’ electricity comes from burning fossil fuels, according to the Energy Information Administration(EIA). That’s across the country. Energy in some states, California for example, comes from cleaner, renewable sources. However, some states like Pennsylvania, Texas, and Ohio utilize very few renewable resources to generate their electricity. So an EV in California might be better than a diesel, but in other states, it might be worse.
We certainly have to take the conclusions of this study with a grain of salt. German automakers invested heavily in internal combustion engine(ICE) technology and, due to the ramping up of emissions standards around the globe, they have had to largely abandon those technologies and take a huge financial hit on the research and development costs. So it’s safe to assume some individuals in Germany may have a vested interest in staying ICE’s execution.
Potential biases aside, the study highlights a big problem that faces BEVs — a problem few people have, or even want to consider. That is, even if we were to power all EVs on solar- and wind-derived electricity, the batteries used to store energy in electric vehicles are produced from rare earth metals that are not only finite but energy intensive to mine and process. With new battery technology on the horizon, it won’t always be that way.
I personally am not sure that natural gas is the solution. That said, there is no one silver bullet. Everyone from individual drivers to global automakers needs to remember that. Battery electric vehicles are clearly being sold as the panacea to solve vehicle emissions problems. They’ll help, for sure. But we can’t throw all our ICE eggs in the BEV basket yet.