Will Electric Cars help or hinder climate action? | RenewEconomy

Will Electric Cars help or hinder climate action?

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Electric cars are only as good as their juice. In coal dominated China, India and Australia, they simply move emissions around the supply chain.

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Shrink That Footprint

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 3.59.42 pm

One of the nice things about not blogging over the holiday period has been the chance to catch up on other blogs.  Llyod Alter’s December pieces in particular have been fascinating, his year in urbanism roundup a real highlight.

Another thoughtful piece was an invitation to discuss the question ‘Are electric cars going to make it harder to fix our cities?‘  In it he again posits that the problem with American cars is ‘not under the hood’ and questions whether electric cars could help reinforce problematic urban sprawl.

Zach Shahan took up this discussion by defending the importance of electric cars in a comment and follow up piece.  He argued that, like it or not, cars are here to stay for the foreseeable future, so we need to decarbonize them while also making cities less dependent on them.

Like Zach I’ve lived in Holland and being able to compare it to my time in Australia and the UK I’m also quite evangelical about the superiority of cities which prioritize cycling and walking over cars.

But if I take my own preferences out of the argument, and look at the data, the reality tells me we need both better cities and better cars, because people still want cars.

As ever I’ll let the data do the talking:

US Driving Has Declined Recently

If you are looking purely at the American experience the argument for a push away from cars is very strong. US car travel peaked in 2007 and vehicle miles travelled per capita fell 8% between 2005 and 2012.

I’ve argued before that high oil prices have played a big role in this, but the most fascinating part of this change for me has been the moving preferences among young Americans.

Over the period 2000-2009 Americans aged 16-34 travelled 23% fewer miles by car, cycled 24% more often, walked 16% more frequently and travelled 40% more miles by public transport .  There is a summary in our generation twitter post.

Although this data supports a possible American push-back against the car, looking at the picture globally makes one less sanguine.

Car Manufacturing Is Still Trending Up

The BBC ran a wonderful Hans Rosling talk/documentary recently about demographics called Don’t Panic.  In it he described the transition from extreme poverty to wealth in five stages of transport.

The first was to buy shoes, then a bicycle, followed by motorbike, then a car and finally to be able to afford to fly.  Although I’m well versed in how sustainable these different transport modes are, it is hard to escape the reality that the world now has a billion people that currently own a bike, e-bike or motorbike but aspire to own a car.  Cars may become less fashionable in time, but I can’t see that in the data today.

Demand from the burgeoning middle classes in places like China, India and Brazil underpins the continuing growth of car manufacturing globally.

In the wake of the global recession in 2008 and 2009 vehicle manufacturing has rebounded to 84 million in 2012.  Although I realize that the atmosphere can’t afford all these new cars I wouldn’t bet much on that curve flattening, much less dropping.

Using low carbon power electric car emissions are about a quarter of an inefficient gasoline car and half that of a top hybrid, that includes their considerable construction footprint.  If battery prices keep dropping EVs could play a very big role in tackling transport emissions.

I’m still waiting for Toyota to build a full electric, but EVs are looking more competitive by the year.  They aren’t a panacea by any stretch, but they are one of many important levers.

America Is The Key EV Market in Terms of Carbon

As much as America can benefit from better, denser cities, it is also the place in the world where electric vehicles could make the biggest emissions difference quickly.  There are two reasons for this:

The first is that the carbon benefits of electric cars are extremely dependent on where the electricity comes from.  I’ve covered this before in our Electric Car Emissions report, and in the more readable The ‘Electric Cars Aren’t Green Myth’ Debunked.

EV emissions equivalent

The basic point is that electric cars are only as good as their juice.  When using coal powered electricity like in China, India and Australia electric cars have limited carbon benefit, they simply move the emissions around the supply chain.  So although China is by far the biggest new car market, good hybrids are probably a better bet for slowing transport emissions growth there in the short term, alongside the stratospheric growth of electric bikes.  EV benefits in China may be greater in tackling local air pollution.

Things are very different in the US.  In a great number of US states electric cars have far lower carbon emissions than the best hybrids, plus local air quality benefits.  Moreover, the fuel economy of new cars in the US is still very low at 27 MPG, so each EV purchased makes a bigger difference.

The second reason the US is the most important EV market for carbon is that Americans drive more than everyone else.  Consider this statistic for a second.  In 2010 the total road passenger kilometers travelled in the US were greater than in China, India, Russia, Germany, the UK, Italy, Spain and France combined.  The American love affair with the car is truly mind-boggling!

In the visualization below I’ve mapped road passenger kilometres per capita from 2010 with data from the World Bank.  It looks a little empty but if you hover over the map you’ll find data for 50 countries.

In 2010 the average distance travelled by an American on roads was 22,081 passenger kilometres.  This was 43% further than a typical Canadian, 60% more than an Australian, double that of a Britian and 20 times more than the Chinese average (remembering most don’t own cars).

Even though Americans are driving less than a few years ago, they still drive a colossal amount.  As such EVs have the potential to reduce total driving emissions in the US more than anywhere else, while we wait for Gen Y to go urban.

Better Cities and Cars

Given the continued momentum of global car sales we desperately need low carbon vehicles like EVs.  I’m pretty squarely in agreement with Zach on this.  Not because I want to be, but simply because that is what the data tells me.

With the current state of electric car technology I’m also not convinced they are doing anything much to increase the total demand for cars, so I’m happy to see them substitute for ones using oil if they use low carbon electricity.

In the longer term I think Lloyd Alter brings up a really interesting point, which he noted in a comment on Cleantechnica:

I remain convinced that once the self-driving electric car becomes the norm (and I do not think that it is that far away) it will be a licence to sprawl

Now I’ve got no clue how close self-driving electric cars, but this point makes sense to me.  A half hour commute reading a book for me would be many fold more tolerable than driving the same period of time.  Could that facilitate more sprawl?  It’s seems possible, and should certainly be on planner’s radars.

In a post a few months ago about the 5 Elements of Sustainable Transport  my fifth element was urbanization.   That is where I’m in full agreement with Lloyd and part of why I enjoyed his Year in Urbanism roundup so much.

If in the race to build better cars we take our eye off the goal of building better cities we will miss a huge opportunity to improve not only emissions, but many aspects of society, life and health.
Source: Shrink That Footprint. Reproduced with permission.






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  1. JP White 6 years ago

    “electric cars are only as good as their juice”

    This is true, but many overlook the fact that EV’s use a fraction of the fuel compared to a Gasoline/Diesel vehicle. An EV is SO MUCH more efficient in moving around that the reduction in total emissions (rather than the make up of the emissions) is dramatic. Switching to Electric will reduce emissions. We can argue for ever and a day if that means coal fired electric or hydro electric, or solar panels on your home (or on your car as Ford have introduced). The dirtiness of the fuel is less important than the total reduction in fuel consumption.

    The ‘coal’ argument waged against EV’s is simply a smoke screen to hide the fact that emissions can and will be reduced when EV’s become popular.

  2. Ben Courtice 6 years ago

    EVs on dirty coal power may seem like a bad idea, but if there is a program to shift away from coal power any time soon, then those EVs are going to become progressively cleaner. A petrol (or petrol hybrid) vehicle is going to keep burning fossil fuels for its lifespan.
    More fundamentally, we need to question the idea that travel requires taking a 5 square metre, two tonne piece of metal with you, let alone the fuel or battery to power it. Electric bikes are really promising in this regard. A priority to make them easy to buy and maintain, and for roads to be safe for them, would go a long way to fixing all manner of transport problems.

  3. Bob_Wallace 6 years ago

    I seem to have missed the rule that it is forbidden to do two things at the same time.

    Anyone who doesn’t realize that the world is starting to transition off fossil fuels has been living under a rock. Even China, the Evil Black Empire (in some people’s minds) is capping their coal use and furiously installing wind and solar.

    Our grids, in large parts of the world, are getting cleaner. There’s no reason to wait for them to be lily white before transitioning off petroleum for transportation.

    EVs help the greening of the gird. EVs are dispatchable load. They can soak up solar wind peaks, then drop off line when supply is thin. That means we can install a lot more wind/solar before we need to start adding grid storage. EVs make greening the grid cheaper.

    • Bob_Wallace 6 years ago

      Just ran across this…

      “China has embarked on the greatest push for renewable energy the world has ever seen.

      A key element involves more than doubling the number of wind turbines in the next six years.

      Already the world’s largest producer of wind power, China plans further massive increases.

      From a current installed capacity of 75 gigawatts (GW), the aim is to achieve a staggering 200GW by 2020.

      By contrast, the European Union countries together have just over 90GW of installed wind capacity.”


        • Bob_Wallace 6 years ago

          Count on Anthony to misrepresent the facts.

          Germany 2013.

          Hard coal up. Brown coal, natural gas and oil down. Net decrease in fossil fuel use for electricity.

          • Concerned 6 years ago
          • Bob_Wallace 6 years ago

            Do you mean emissions in Germany?

            They probably fell in 2013. There are some claims on the web that emissions were up in 2013 but that was from a calculation made before the year was over. Preliminary calculations suggest that emissions will be down a bit once all the data is included.

            Now they may also be up a bit. Natural gas use was down and hard coal up which might lead to higher emissions. We’ll have to wait and see. Either way the change is likely to be small and not significant.

            Remember, natural gas prices rose in Europe last year and fossil fuel generation switched from gas to coal to some extent.

      • Bob_Wallace 6 years ago

        Your article says that China approved mining more domestic coal. It does not say that China wrote new legislation to reverse the law in place which caps total coal burning starting in 2015.

        We’ll have to see how that plays out. As the article points out China continues to close older inefficient coal plants as they open much more efficient plants.

        I suspect this is bad news for Australian coal plants. They stand to lose export market at the same time domestic consumption is falling.

        And it probably is bad new for US coal mines as well. They’ve been trying to find a Pacific coast port willing to let them export coal to Asia. If China is not going to be importing US mines are going to hurt as we are also cutting consumption.

        It is certainly time to divest from any coal industry holdings. Investor income is going down the tubes….

        • Concerned 6 years ago

          They have a funny way of showing how to cap.And by the way the majority of coal exports from Australia are not thermal coal,but metallurgical coal.
          Closing inefficient plants, opening more efficient plants,and yetusing a hundred million tons of coal more? Something is amiss.
          And the increase in one year is massive,not incremental.
          Fantasy world.indeed.

          • Giles 6 years ago

            Gee, you talk some crap. Australia’s thermal coal exports are bigger than metallurgical coal. http://www.worldcoal.org/resources/coal-statistics/
            Can’t even get basic facts right. The rest is just spin. See ya.

          • Bob_Wallace 6 years ago

            The cap kicks in next year, not this year or last year.

            Funny will have to wait until it’s time.

            I think if you read your link carefully it’s talking about construction of mines, not coal burning plants. Here, let me copy the important point over for you…

            “China approved the construction of more than 100 million tonnes of new coal production capacity in 2013 – six times more than a year earlier and equal to 10 per cent of US annual usage – flying in the face of plans to tackle choking air pollution.

            The scale of the increase, which only includes major mines,

            “production capacity” “mines”


            “generation capacity” “plants”

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