New study: EVs emit less greenhouse gases than diesels, even in coal-heavy regions

The myth of the “long tailpipe” – the idea that, because EVs are partially powered by dirty coal, they are no cleaner than legacy vehicles – just won’t go away. In 2012, a detailed study from the Union of Concerned Scientists found that even if it were charged 100% from coal, an EV would still be cleaner than the average ICE vehicle. Since then, study after study after study after study after study after study has reached similar conclusions (and writer David Herron has published a digestible summary of the issue).

However, the myth is easy for Joe Sixpack to understand, while its refutation relies on complex statistical analysis, so the long tailpipe has become a go-to talking point, not only for EV-haters, but also for lazy journalists who want to present a “balanced” picture and, sadly, for policymakers who haven’t taken the time to fully study the issue.

The latest look at the topic comes in a report from Belgium’s VUB University, which found that “Electric cars emit significantly less greenhouse gases over their lifetimes than diesel engines, even when they are powered by the most carbon-intensive energy.”

The researchers modeled the full lifecycle of a vehicle, from manufacturing through battery recycling. They found that, in Poland, which gets a large proportion of its electricity from coal, EVs produced 25% less emissions than diesel vehicles. In the UK, the reduction was about 50%, while in Sweden, which has Europe’s cleanest grid, it was 85%.

“On average, electric vehicles will emit half the CO2 emissions of a diesel car by 2030, including the manufacturing emissions,” said Yoann Le Petit, a spokesman for the T&E think tank, which commissioned the study. “We’ve been facing a lot of fake news in the past year about electrification, but in this study you can see that even in Poland today, it is more beneficial to the climate to drive an electric vehicle than a diesel.”

The VUB study also looked at critical materials such as lithium, cobalt, nickel, graphite and rare earths, some of which have their own environmental issues, and concluded that, while their use should be closely monitored and diversified, it should not constrain the clean transport transition.


Source: The Guardian

  • brenno

    This is a great article, the argument that EVs just move the CO2 from the tailpipe to the Coal fired power station is frustratingly perpetuated event though it has been proven to be incorrect.

    • nordlyst

      Another often seen mistake, perhaps originally put out there by forces who knew very well what they were doing, is to compare the *tailpipe* emissions of ICE to the *cradle-to-grave* emissions of EVs – as if not one molecule of CO2 is emitted by exploring for oil, extracting it, refining it, and distributing it to a pump near you!

      I’ve seen multiple mainstream media articles where they show the numbers and clearly make exactly this mistake. Look up average CO2 emissions per km for, say, cars sold in Europe in 2016, then calculate the supposedly equivalent figure for making electricity from coal to power an EV. That’s tailpipe emissions only, and the mistake is compounded by two further mistakes:

      1) tailpipe emissions are systematically skewed, especially in Europe, because it’s based on unrealistic consumption figures. Transport & Environment investigated this issue and found real consumption to be 30-40% higher than stated!

      2) Almost nobody has electricity exclusively from coal, and the average energy mix will continue to improve. This matters because an EV sold today is expected to remain on the road for two decades, and the effect of policy changes today themselves take many years to significantly change EV share. When evaluating a policy we should therefore consider the energy mix for electricity over at least the next 30 years, as it is extremely unrealistic the most polluting sources will hold on to their share. In fact the mix has improved quite rapidly in the last decade, and coal is losing share fastest of all.

      It’s annoying when the public decides to ignore even a wide consensus among the experts because they don’t like where that leads. And it’s a good way to see how irrational we are. Very few people have strong opinions contrary to the scientific consensus regarding how to build bridges or how to design computers, but these same people need only to see the simplest “analysis” to convince themselves they understand something all the experts have missed. And it always happens to be something that enables them not to be confronted in any way! Religious nuts have issues with geology because it means the world is very much older than their holy book says it is. More normal people have issues with climate science because it implies our lives are fundamentally immoral…

      I doubt people will stop behaving this way anytime soon. And one consequence is that the best way to get people to embrace EVs, solar panels and so on is to make them desirable products. By saving people money, being more reliable, or giving the user some other direct benefit that has nothing to do with “saving the world”. Ironically, many of the crazier people on the other side of the fence seems so attached to this notice that they lose interest once the sacrifice is gone. For example, lots of people insist we should sort our garbage despite it having been demonstrated machines do it much better. In other words we can recycle more if we put all our trash in the same bin and leave it to machines to do the sorting – a fact many people just won’t believe, presumably because sorting gives them a feeling of doing something good and important…

  • Joe Jackson

    With the possible introduction of wireless charging systems are the boffins factoring in the inefficiency of the charging system i.e it will take possibly 20% more energy input than the vehicle is actually receiving.

    • Knud P

      Some people just do not want to get the message!!

      • Joe Jackson

        I am pro electric ev’s – one good argument for them is traffic jams – so many in the UK & a great source of pollution – no pollution of course with ev’s or with ic switch off management – but too many older cars or drivers who keep their foot on the clutch & keep the engine running.
        Second argument – globally the balance of pollution may or may not change but ev’s at least transfer it out of town to the distant location of the (coal fired) power station which hopefully is not in a centre of population.
        The revolution may come when there are more family sized cars with 0-60 mph in 10 seconds & top speed 100mph. Tesla is not quite there yet – they are still performance hungry using more power than is really necessary.

  • nordlyst

    Sigh. Even the fifty percent improvement figure is low balling the benefit. And here’s why: it’s based on the average energy mix TODAY.

    But you can’t switch global car production completely to EVs overnight. That takes many years even if you start making policy to push EVs right now.

    If you could magically make every car sold starting right now a BEV, it would be twenty years before 95% of the fleet was electric.

    So, to evaluate the benefit of one policy or another you must think at least 30-40 years ahead. Assuming the energy mix for electricity will not improve at all is completely unrealistic!

    Lastly, Sweden doesn’t have Europe’s cleanest grid as you claim. Norway takes that honour. But since we’re not in the EU, I guess you forgot we’re still a European nation, much like Canada is in North America…