Most students at Brown are no strangers to the environmentalist movement. An abundance of on-campus groups advocate for conservation, composting, alternative energy, and other environmentally friendly practices. These vocal organizations engage in everything from minor events in Morning Mail to big campaigns like Brown Divest Coal. At first glance, it might seem that such activism puts them at the forefront of cultivating eco-friendly habits. However, one item at the top of environmentalist checklists — the use of hybrid and electric vehicles (EV) — deserves reconsideration. Though driving these vehicles appears to be a staple of moral environmentalism, hybrid and electric cars have critical flaws that have been pushed beneath the surface: Huge carbon costs of production, combined with the electrical grid’s reliance on coal power, give green vehicles a misleading name. Brown’s conscientious environmentalists need to take note, because though their hearts are in the right place, in promoting hybrid cars and EVs they are advocating for something that actually harms the environment. If nothing else, they can get a better deal for themselves.
In a dealership that sells EVs or hybrids, an eco-conscious consumer will notice two things: the vehicle’s sticker price and its “tailpipe emissions.” The latter is heavily advertised, since the low fossil fuel intake of hybrids and EVs is a main attraction for green shoppers. However, if the consumer takes these low emission numbers as a sign of the car’s greenness, he is being duped: “Tailpipe emissions” does not mean total emissions. This is no semantic distinction, for recent evidence indicates that the manufacturing process of EVs and, to a lesser extent, hybrids, incurs noteworthy levels of pollution. In 2012, the Journal of Industrial Ecology published one of the first comprehensive studies of the life cycle of battery-powered cars. It found that EVs require 30,000 pounds of carbon dioxide to produce, whereas conventional internal-combustion vehicles usually need less than half that amount. These 30,000 pounds of CO2 are “the equivalent of 80,000 miles of travel in the vehicle[,]” according to a study by the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership. That’s a good portion of the car’s lifetime driving distance. Add that to how most hybrids or EVs eventually need their batteries replaced, and this carbon cost of production gets quite steep. In turn, the on-road benefits of hybrids and EVs shrinks considerably.
The environmental impact of manufacturing is not confined to just greenhouse gas emissions. Electric vehicles “exhibit … significant increases in human toxicity, freshwater eco-toxicity, freshwater eutrophication, and metal depletion impacts, largely emanating from the vehicle supply chain,” the study notes. This supply chain causes both non-carbon and carbon-based environmental harms. The rare earth metals used in EV batteries are the main culprits. These valuable resources are mined through an energy-intensive and environmentally fraught process, a fact that never seems to make it to the showroom. Yet rare earth metals are not just carbon-intensive — they are also running out. A recent study by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology indicates that “[a]s the world moves toward greater use of low-carbon and zero-carbon energy sources, a possible bottleneck looms[:] the supply of certain metals needed for key clean-energy technologies.” Even optimistic researchers, such as those at Imperial College London, concede that the carbon- and resource-intensiveness of the production process means green vehicles will only be truly effective after “breakthroughs in battery technology.” By their most optimistic projections, these breakthroughs are several decades away. That makes green cars a poor asset for the present-day do-gooder.
Given the greenhouse gas costs of producing battery-based vehicles, the tailpipe emissions sticker in hybrid showrooms certainly deserves an asterisk. Yet to many EV or hybrid owners, this might just mean that they need to drive their car more. That way, low or zero on-road emissions seem to make up for the carbon cost of manufacturing. However, before EV drivers go cruising alongside conventional vehicles in moral superiority, they should think about how their cars get power. The electricity with which they recharge is certainly not derived from low- or zero-carbon sources; the aforementioned Journal of Industrial Ecology paper also found that “[w]hen powered by electricity from natural gas, … EVs offer a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of 12 percent compared to gasoline ICEVs [internal combustion engine vehicles] and break even with diesel ICEVs. EVs powered by coal electricity are expected to cause an increase in GWP [global warming potential] of 17 percent to 27 percent compared with diesel and gasoline ICEVs.” Since the benefits of EVs are highly subject to the local electricity grid, it seems that they are not a one-size-fits-all solution. In fact, it might be quite the opposite: When countries rely heavily on coal for power, electric vehicles damage the environment more than their fossil fuel counterparts. And even if the country cultivates much natural gas, the benefits of green cars are so small as to be miniscule.
Large-scale EV usage will make a dent in climate change if worldwide reliance on coal or natural gas ends. However, even by the most generous estimations, that will be a long time from now. As economic growth demands more energy, the United States and many other nations are increasing their usage of natural gas and coal. In fast-developing countries like China, this increase is stark. The World Bank places China as the world’s number one greenhouse gas emitter, a title that it holds by deriving 70 percent of its electricity from coal. In an article published by the journal Environmental Science and Technology, analysts found that electric cars actually exacerbate China’s gross carbon footprint. This presents a serious conundrum, for as China continues its climb as an economic powerhouse, it will not find a carbon cure in the latest EV. Given battery vehicles’ inability to fit into the world’s carbon-based energy infrastructure, the Journal of Industrial Ecology paper concluded, “EVs are a means of moving emissions away from the road rather than reducing them globally.” If an environmentalist wants to do their part, they should probably buy diesel.
Given that EVs are largely untenable, individual consumers should shift away from these battery-based vehicles. For the eco-conscious among us, a new fuel-efficient, conventional model would probably be best. However, how should society shift? Bjorn Lomborg, director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, points out how the lifetime CO2 savings of an electric car — in comparison to contemporary gas- or diesel-powered vehicles — is about 8.7 tons. This might sound like a lot, but “[t]he current best estimate of the global warming damage of an extra ton of carbon-dioxide is about $5. This means an optimistic assessment of the avoided carbon dioxide associated with an electric car will allow the owner to spare the world about $44 in climate damage.” Lomborg contrasts this paltry figure with the $7,500 subsidy each EV buyer gets from the U.S. government. Furthermore, “$5.5 billion in federal grants and loans go directly to battery and electric-car manufacturers.” Quite obviously, the numbers do not add up. If we want the most environmental bang for our buck, it is time for policymakers to stop giving favorable treatment to hybrid and EV aficionados.
Some EV and hybrid proponents will fret that jettisoning eco-cars might set us on a slippery slope to disregarding climate change entirely. However, nothing can be further from the truth. Consumers should not be lulled into a false sense of complacency about the environmental viability of their car purchases; if they are, then they will buy an electric vehicle or hybrid, feel good, and look no further. In this way, misdirection about conservationist cars will weigh down campaigns to counter climate change. If the many environmentalist clubs at Brown truly want to lower greenhouse gas emissions, they should carefully examine the commonplace support for so-called “responsible vehicles.” Only by looking through the hype can our cars — as well as our wallets — have a bit more green in them.