In the last few days, a report has been hitting the headlines in the UK about the carbon footprint of producing EVs. The main story is that (mostly due to the batteries) the manufacture of an electric vehicle means that it will need to drive 50,000 miles before an equivalent fossil fuel car becomes less green. This is not a complete lie – the carbon footprint of EV manufacture is (generally) higher than for fossil fuel cars at the moment. But leading on this headline figure obscures a lot of detail, and when you dig deeper, the motivations for the report behind it become more questionable.
The first eyebrow gets raised by the fact that this “new” report is actually based on information released over two months ago. The main example is the comparison between the production of a Polestar 2 EV and a conventional Volvo XC40, stating that the former produces 24 tons of CO2 during manufacture where the latter only takes 14 tons. This is a fair comparison because both cars come from the same parent company, Geely. In fact, Polestar itself released the information in September, so the numbers seem legitimate. The reason why this report is rehashing the information as new appears to be in reaction to the UK government announcement of a ban on sales of new fossil fuel cars in 2030.
The problem is that most of the articles are leading on the worst-case scenario and either not stating the detail or burying it as far down their pieces as possible. The 50,000-mile figure is assuming the EV is being charged with the average blend of electricity sources on the UK national grid, which includes a lot of renewable input now but still regularly uses a lot of fossil fuels as well, particularly natural gas. There are a number of live tools where you can see this blend, but my favorite can be found here.
However, most EV early adopters have green intentions and use energy suppliers like Octopus, which use 100% renewable sources, or even have their own solar panels. So leading with the 50,000-mile figure is disingenuous at best. As Polestar itself points out, for renewable electricity sources, the Polestar 2 only has to drive 50,000km (31,000 miles) before it has produced less carbon. That’s less than four years of usage if you take the average of 7,000 miles a year driven in the UK – and this average is higher in other countries, such as the USA.
As an aside, there’s a lot of controversy about how much electricity is required in gasoline production, with some putting it as high as 6kWh per gallon. If this figure is true, and assuming a fossil fuel car can do 40mpg (a very generous estimate for city usage), a Tesla TSLA +2% Model 3 Long Range could travel 26 miles with that 6kWh of electricity if used directly (based on its 360 miles of WLTP range), so only 14 miles fewer. This is almost certainly not taken into account for the CO2 emissions of the fossil fuel car. If you did, the EV would only have to travel about 11,000 miles before the fossil fuel car becomes more polluting.
You also don’t need to look far to see that the companies that commissioned the report could well have ulterior motives. They are Honda, Aston Martin, Bosch, and McLaren. Honda has released a rather fun little EV called the Honda e, but its range is woeful and the company is clearly behind the main EV contenders in core technology. Aston Martin cancelled its RapidE electric vehicle and is now not promising anything electric until 2026, which is likely to be too late to catch up. Bosch got out of the battery business a few years ago and is now heavily invested in hydrogen fuel cells. McLaren, as brilliant as its cars are, won’t even have a hybrid until 2021 let alone an electric model, unlike Lotus with its gorgeous Evija.
The disruptive arrival of battery-electric vehicles (BEV), primarily driven by Tesla, has clearly gotten a lot of incumbent car manufacturers very scared. Volkswagen is tackling the threat head on and has released the excellent ID.3, which is already the number one-selling EV in Europe, with many more to come including the ID.4. Korean carmakers Kia and Hyundai are producing excellent EVs, despite Hyundai also putting a lot of development money into hydrogen. But many other brands have been caught napping, and failed to take the threat seriously, particularly Toyota. The UK 2030 ban announcement has clearly galvanized them into trying to stop or at least delay the inevitable using negative press. It’s no surprise that the majority of publications covering this story – such as the Daily Mail, The Times, The Telegraph and Metro – are generally considered right-wing politically, with a tendency to try to preserve the status quo.
As with the self-driving hybrid con, some people will read the headlines, not dig deeper for the details, and fall for this attempt to blacken the green credentials of EVs. But taking a step back, it just seems rather sad. When you look at the constantly falling price of EV batteries, making a $25,000 Tesla possible by 2023, and the drive towards greener battery production, the mass arrival of BEVs seems inevitable. Batteries won’t replace every transportation type – they are best suited to personal cars, bikes, and scooters – but they are much, much greener than fossil fuel cars. With adequate charging infrastructure, they can decrease CO2 emissions considerably and improve air quality dramatically. They really are a silver bullet for emissions neutrality; don’t believe the hype from companies with heavy fossil fuel bias.