The electric vehicle carbon emissions debate – Financial Times


What would be your immediate answer to this question: what has a lower carbon footprint — a diesel car or an electric car?

No looking now. All right, had a guess?

OK, here’s the answer.

Like FT Alphaville, you probably guessed an electric car. However the answer, like most things in life, is less clear than that. In fact, according to Volkswagen, the answer is really “it depends”.

We came across this graphic from 2019 which the $TKbn Wolfsburg-based automaker released as part of the marketing for its new e-Golf. It sort of blew our minds:

Yep, that’s what VW estimate the carbon footprint is for its new e-Golf, versus its diesel equivalent. The most striking thing is that, due to the energy intensive nature of battery production, it takes roughly 120,000 kilometres of use for the e-Golf to have a lower emissions.

Of course, it does depend on where the electricity used to charge the car comes from. But VW addressed that issue too:

Mazda have mad similar noises about the relative carbon output of electric cars, according to Tesla’s proxy investor relations website Electrek.

A few points to be made here. First is that carbon emissions are not the only negative externality that electric vehicles mitigate — they also reduce air and noise pollution, which have a detrimental effect on many things, from house prices to health.

The second point is to be made is that battery technology is still incredibly inefficient to manufacture (it makes up 43.25 per cent of the e-Golf’s total carbon footprint) as we should expect this to improve as technology improves, although perhaps not at the rate of Moore’s law.

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A final observation here is that, as Emissions Analytics — a leading consultancy — have argued, hybrids are the best means we have right now to reduce carbon emissions. From the its newsletter (with the associated table):

The table above shows that mild hybrids are clearly the most efficient method of CO2 reduction, followed by full hybrids, given scarce battery production capacity. Plug-in hybrids are the next most effective after that, but only if they are operated entirely on battery, which is hard to enforce in practice. BEVs have the lowest efficiency, primarily due to requiring disproportionately large batteries to accommodate relatively infrequent, extreme usage cases where the driver will otherwise suffer range anxiety.

Emissions Analytics to go on to argue that incentivising the uptake of hybrid tech allows time for countries to develop the necessary infrastructure for electric cars — whether it be in the form of cleaner power sources, or mitigating the various supply chain issues of battery tech — so emissions goals can be met by 2030.

Sure, owning an electric car may make you feel good. That you’re doing your bit for the planet, but as it turns out, unless you’re planning to drive one to obsolescence, while using clean power sources, they might not be the best option to ensure Mother Earth’s survival today.

We realise this is a relatively simple overview, so thoughts from informed readers are welcome below. But please, no EV fanboys.


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