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Electric cars are worse for the environment

Posted By Joanne Nova On October 10, 2012 @ 12:19 pm In Global Warming | Comments Disabled

When everything else about being Green turns out to be a pox on the environment, it’s no surprise that electric cars are too.

The Norwegian University of Science and Technology study found greenhouse gas emissions [of electric cars] rose dramatically if coal was used to produce the electricity.

Electric car factories also emitted more toxic waste than conventional car factories, their report in the Journal of Industrial Ecology said.

So electric cars are only bad if they are powered by coal fired electricity, or made in a factory. Oh.

Presumably the aspiring Green needs a hand-made hydroelectric car, right? That, or the kind of car that has 18 gears, a chain and two wheels.

The kicker with electric vehicles, or EVs, is that awful secret that batteries don’t grow on trees, don’t recharge spontaneously either, and need replacing every five years or so. There is no getting around the fact that electric vehicles need electricity. They may not emit any evil CO2 themselves, but they have to get those electrons from somewhere, and in most places that’s from coal.

And it wasn’t just the coal, it was other stages of the “life-cycle” too. The production of EVs produced about twice as much CO2 (which makes me think the headline is wrong, and actually Electric Cars are better for the environment). But it’s not just about carbon emissions, it about the batteries, the minerals, the magnets, nearly everything really.

“Across the other impacts considered in the analysis including potential for effects related to acid rain, airborne particulate matter, smog, human toxicity, ecosystem toxicity and depletion of fossil fuel and mineral resources, electric vehicles consistently perform worse or on par with modern internal combustion engine vehicles, despite virtually zero direct emissions during operation,” according to Prof Stromman.

Figure 1 (below) compares different kinds of cars, different fuel sources, different batteries, and looks at the life-cycle total damage. Normal cars are labelled ICEV (internal combustion engine vehicle). Electric vehicle = EV. So note the difference between the gas guzzling type of car (“IECV D” for diesel and “IECV G” for gasoline) and the EV type of cars powered by NG (Natural Gas) or C (Coal). Source .

electric cars, environmental damage

Figure 1 compares six transportation technologies in terms of ten life cycle environmental impact categories. The cases represent an LiNCM or LiFePO4 EV powered by European average electricity (Euro), an LiNCM EV powered by either natural gas (NG) or coal (C) electricity, and an ICEV [normal internal combustion engine car] powered by either gasoline (G) or diesel (D). Impacts are broken down in terms of life cycle stages and normalized to the greatest impact. Differences between the impacts of the two EV options arise solely from differences in the production of the batteries.  Figure 1. Normalized impacts of vehicle production. Results for each impact category have been normalized to the largest total impact. Global warming (GWP), terrestrial acidification (TAP), particulate matter formation (PMFP), photochemical oxidation formation (POFP), human toxicity (HTP), freshwater eco-toxicity (FETP), terrestrial eco-toxicity (TETP), freshwater eutrophication (FEP), mineral resource depletion (MDP), fossil resource depletion (FDP), internal combustion engine vehicle (ICEV), electric vehicle (EV), lithium iron phosphate (LiFePO4), lithium nickel cobalt manganese (LiNCM), coal (C), natural gas (NG), European electricity mix (Euro).


Here in Australia, 85% of the electricity comes from coal. For electric cars downunder, the message is clear:

…in regions where fossil fuels are the main sources of power, electric cars offer no benefits and may even cause more harm, the report said.

In the end, it’s not that you can pick between a petrol, diesel or electric car, its that you can choose fossil fuels or fossil fuels. Will that be liquid fuel or the solid burned-at-a-distance kind? It’s a coal-powered-car indeed.

Luckily for the environment, there aren’t many electric cars on the road downunder. Better Place (that’s a company name) are trying to set up a network in Melbourne.

Electric vehicle network plugs in

MELBOURNE will be the fourth place in the world to get an electric vehicle network as the Silicon Valley-based technology company Better Place embarks on the next stage of its $1 billion Australian expansion plans.

Mr Agassi said Better Place was also looking at linking capital cities along Australia’s eastern seaboard. It eventually envisages 500 charge stations across the country. “We looked at the Melbourne-Brisbane road. If you think of the corridor — Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney, Brisbane — it is the same length from San Diego to Seattle.

This is the part I like best:

Better Place has targeted Australia because it has the world’s seventh-highest per capita rate of car ownership, with more than 15 million cars on the road.

And how many of those 15 million cars are electric? Not too many.  Last year national sales of electric cars in Australia was a grand total of 49 cars. That’s almost one new electric car on the road each week!

So if you are that person this week who is thinking of buying an electric car in Australia, all I can say is: make sure you are buying it for its road handling and acceleration.


Hawkins, R., Singh, B., Majeau-Bettez, G.,  Strømman A.H. (2012) Comparative Environmental Life Cycle Assessment of Conventional and Electric Vehicles, Journal of Industrial Ecology,  DOI: 10.1111/j.1530-9290.2012.00532.x


h/t Darren Porter


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