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Do electric cars make climate change better or worse?

Michael Barnard

Recently there has been debate about the impact of electric vehicles on the changing climate. In response, the following item by Michael Barnard was posted on Quora (on 12 August 2019).

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The best way to think of this is comparative harm.

Every electric vehicle (EV) displaces exactly one internal combustion engine (ICE) car. The ICE car would be burning fossil fuels its entire life, creating 20 pounds of CO2 for every gallon of gas. The EV will be mixed, based on where it is, but always well below that.

Furthermore, all grids are dicarbonizing. An EV purchased now will have lower emissions in 5 years than today. Meanwhile, ICE cars suffer normal degradation including in gas mileage. After 5 years it will likely be emitting slightly more than now.

Finally, many jurisdictions allow purchase of carbon-neutral electricity from wind or solar. Many early EV adopters did that or have solar panels on their homes. It’s possible today to have close to zero emissions per mile driven, with only the embodied CO2 from manufacturing the car in the first place.

And of course mineral extraction and processing, construction and distribution are decarbonizing too.

The world is becoming more virtuous. Too slowly, but it is. And EVs are part of that.

Note: my personal policy is to block and mute climate change deniers. Yours should be too.

Michael Barnard is a low-carbon innovation strategist

Commentary from Graham West

EVs are also far more efficient than ICE cars. ICE cars convert 17-25% of the energy in the petrol into moving the car forward, while EVs convert about 60% of the energy from the grid into moving the car forward. So if you drew electricity only at peak time and all the electricity was from coal generation then an EVE would produce between 1/3 and 1/2 of the CO2 of an ICE car. If you are charging at night (which is when a lot of charging is done), you are probably using electricity that would otherwise be wasted. Electricity generation is driven by peak demand. There is limited flexibility overall – and although hydro is very flexible, you can’t just turn on or off coal-fired of nuclear- generated electric power etc)

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