Coming Clean on Electric Cars

Electricity spells kosher for many an eco-warrior, with battery-powered cars seen as the answer to vehicle-generated pollution. An analysis by carmaker Volvo suggests it is not so simple.

“An honest word, for a change” headlined an intriguing article by Timo Völker in the Vienna daily Die Presse September 20. A recent study released by Swedish carmaker Volvo, indicates that an all-electric auto’s lifetime CO2 footprint is only marginally cleaner than a traditional internal combustion-engine vehicle.  

Put simply: A battery-powered car is much dirtier to produce than its diesel/gas powered equivalent, but pollutes less over its total lifetime. If you drive it far enough. 

Four Tons of CO2 per Car per Year

This certainly challenges the current perceived wisdom of electric = greenly good, diesel/gas, stinky bad. The occasion for this blast of ecological clarity was the launch of (now) Chinese-owned Volvo’s new all electric Polestar 2. “We need to be honest, even if it makes for uncomfortable reading,” Polestar CEO Thomas Ingenlath told the trade magazine Autocar.  And disconcertingly uncomfortable it certainly is.  For a start America’s governmental EPA reckons a normal family wagon blasts out more than four tons of CO2 a year, twice the weight of the car you’re probably driving.  (Four tons! Who knew that, honestly?). But at least, we can console ourselves: Buy an electric car and do the planet a good turn. Also not quite the way it seems.

A Long Drive to Save the Planet

The Volvo study shows that the carbon footprint in the manufacturing of their conventional XC40 is 14 tons, the electric Polestar 2 is 24 tons. The difference is partly the extensive use of aluminum to save weight, but mainly, it’s the energy intensive production of the batteries. Of course once it is on the road, an electric vehicle is much cleaner. The study calculates the carbon footprint break-even point at about 50,000 km – but only if the batteries are charged by entirely renewable wind power. The magazine Autocar reckoned that the Polestar 2 needs to travel nearly 80,000 km if charged on the average European electricity source mix.  Or 112,000 km measured using the global average power source mix.  

As a couple of Autocar‘s perceptive readers pointed out: The life expectancy of the battery pack is only 125,000 km, and most new car buyers trade in their vehicle after three years anyway.  For all the good it does our threatened planet, you might just as well buy a good old fashioned gas guzzler and save yourself the trouble of scouring the neighborhood for a plug-in point.

As the study concludes sotto voce: “Going green isn’t quite as simple as just buying an electric car.” Let the discussion continue.

Simon Ballam
English, studied in NY and worked in London, Düsseldorf, NY, Fankfurt, Prague and Vienna. This covered stints in market research and the film industry, international advertising coordination and strategic planning. Currently business school lecturer and journalist.

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