No, the transition to EVs won’t happen overnight.
There are frequent assertions like ‘if every one had an EV tomorrow, then the grid would collapse!’ In fact there are many, many, reasons why it would not work if everyone had an EV tomorrow, including that it would require building 20 years worth of normal car production overnight, and just building that number of cars would create an incredible surge in emissions.
In reality, while there are many constraints on how quickly the world could transition to EVs, the production limitation, which is the challenge of producing the EVs and getting them to consumers without creating a huge surge in emissions, already ensures that it will take at least until 2045 to transition to EVs.
This provides over 20 years to solve any other problems such as:
- Can the grid handle the increase of 27% as required if everyone had an electric car.
- Will there be enough chargers for everyone?
- How do we retrain all the people who currently service fossil fuel engines?
The market and the transition.
Cars normally have a long life, with only 5% replaced each year.
Elon Musk quotes ‘around two billion cars‘. In 2014 there were 1.2 billion, and in 2018, estimated at over 1.4 billion. In 2022, there are an estimated 1.5 billion ‘cars’ in the world in 2022, and with annual sales of around 80 million, replacing them all would take over 18 years, and that is assuming a completely orderly sequence, with no new EV needing a new replacement before all cars had their turn. Plus, that is ignoring that car life-spans are increasing.
However, as discussed below in ‘the transition is not all green‘, the absolute maximum supply of EVs, would be if all new cars produced were EVs. Increasing the rate at which cars are produced in order to make more EVs would mean ramping the entire supply chains with an increased rate of mining, , an increased rate of wrecking, more factories and materials for the factories, more dealers and shipping, and a change to society to involve more people in the vehicle supply chain. Overall, it would significantly increase environmental damage, all in an effort to make more EVs. It is covered in more detail later, but increasing production creates more waste, and more emissions.
So just imagine that the problems of transitioning manufacturing to EVs was solved overnight, so instead of long wait times, there were EVs available. Plus, everyone was happy to choose an EV.
Even if all this was true, the transition would still take 20 years because only 5% of cars are replaced each year, and increasing the number of cars build each year would increase environmental damage.
For any country, you can look at the total number of vehicles, and the number of new vehicle each year, and then divide to reveal approximately how long it would takes, but the other approach is to look at lifespan of vehicles.
As I have calculated previously, but will now update, the ‘lifespan’ of a cars is typically at least around 20 years, and even longer in most countries including the USA, as outlined below. While individual owners normally do not keep cars for 20 years, most cars having several owners during their lifespan.
Countries do not give ‘life expectancy’ data for cars, but they do give ‘average age’, allowing an estimate of ‘life expectancy’. Logically, approximately half of all cars below ‘average age’, and another half older than average age. In reality, more half will be younger than average, as some cars ‘die young’, which means the life span of cars that do not die young will be more than double the average, but double average will cover most vehicles.
The average age of a person in the USA in 2019 was 38.6 years, and life expectancy in 2019, pre-pandemic, was 81.8 years, although some people live to over 100. So typical lifespan’ is a little higher than 2x average age.
Note that some statistics are ‘average age of vehicles on the road’, rather than just a simple average. At the extreme this is calculated by distance travelled, and the more time a vehicle is on the road, the more it affects the data, eliminating the potential skew from vintage cars.
Averages age of cars does vary from country to country, and there are statistics and logic, to support that ‘life expectancy’ for cars is rising.
Using the 2x average formula on vehicles in the USA , as the average age of vehicles driving in the USA being 12 years , the lifespan of car in the USA should be around 24 years, although again, there may be a small number of very on car, even though vintage cars are not in the statistics.
Cars now have less fatal crashes, and also likely are less frequently ‘written off’:
The population motor-vehicle death rate reached its peak in 1937 with 30.8 deaths per 100,000 population. The current rate is 12.9 per 100,000, representing a 58% improvement.National Safety Council Injury Facts.(2020 being current)
The number of cars per person has increased during the period, which suggests the survival rate for cars has been improving even further. If the life expectancy for cars is increasing, current cars may last longer than the current average age suggests. This could also be one reason global car sales stopped growing even before the pandemic. Then, with the pandemic accelerating the trend to an increase in people working from home, cars may be driven less in future, accelerating the rise in ‘car life expectancy’.
So what about other countries? In the UK average car age is just over 8 years, but the source of UK data reports that “the average age of cars in the EU as a whole was 11.5 years in 2019, up from 8.4 years in 2007.”, and that the average age of cars globally is on the rise. Maybe the UK is behind? But in any case, the EU average is over 10, supporting that average car ‘life’ is at least 20 years in the EU.
In Japan the average age is 8.84 years, and again reported as rising. This is despite Japan have specific penalties on registering cars over 5 years of age, that results in many Japanese cars continuing their ‘life’ beyond their time in Japan, as evidenced by a plethora of exporters of used cars from Japan, eg top 10 Japanese Used Car Exporters and JC export. Clearly while cars may live a little below 10 years in Japan, cars that starting life in Japan, often ‘retire’ elsewhere.
In Australia the average age of cars driven is just over 10 years, (and people 37), so again, the lifespan of cars being double average age is over 20 years. This is further confirmed by statistics reported in that same article that there are over 18 million cars in use in Australia, and 800,000 (4.4%) were scrapped in the year prior to that data.
Even in areas (US, Europe, Japan) where wealth is highest, cars last around 20 years, and the lifespan figure is rising, not falling.
This means any transition to new cars will take around 20 years to complete, and around 10 years to reach the half way point, with around 5% of cars replaced each year. This 5% figure is also supported by the calculation above, looking at the total number of cars in comparison with annual sales.
So if we could get to all purchases being EVs in just 3 years, it would still take until 2045 to replace previous cars.
Currently in 2022, only around 1 in 4 car purchases are new car purchases.
Data from Statista reveals that in 2021 in the USA, there were 43.1 million used car purchases, and only 15.3 new car purchases. This means only 26%, or approximate 1 in 4 car purchases, was a purchase of a new car.
I have not found global data on used vs new car sales, but there is little reason to assume that the USA has a higher ratio of used car sales to other countries.
Given all used cars were new cars several years ago, and new EV sales several years ago were almost zero and there were was very little product choice, there are now almost zero used EVs available and very little product choice. EVs are close to unavailable in the used car market, which means EVs are currently only an option for new car buyers.
This would make the 12% of new car sales, represent only 3% of all car sales globally.
As the graph shows, the percentage of vehicle purchases where an EV is the vehicle of choice is rising rapidly, but even if 100% of all new car sales were EVs, there would still be a considerable delay for used car sales to be dominated by EVs.
EV Purchases are only 12% of all new car purchases (Mid 2022).
EVs are expensive, and are still sufficiently uncompetitive in many market segments that only 12% (1 in 8) of new car purchases are EVs, as of mid 2022, having risen from 8.3% in 2021, 4.3% in 2020 and just 2.2% in 2018.
Manufacturers transitioning product ranges and manufacturing facilities fast enough for the trend to continue will be a challenge.
Already, demand for Electric Vehicles outstrips supply, as evidenced by backorders for popular EV brands such as Tesla and , BYD and EV models from established brands the F150 Lighting from Ford or the Ioniq 5 from Hyundai, all have hundreds of thousand of unfulfilled orders and/or wait times of well over 6 months.
So supply, not demand, is the constraint on new EVs sales.
No one need buy an EV just to save the Planet, as demand exceeds supply.
There is an EY (Ernst and Young) survey which concluded that “consumers are charging toward electric vehicles” and states that, globally, most (52%) of people want their next car to be an EV.
While overall levels of travel reported remain lower when compared to the pre-pandemic benchmark, the number of consumers who say constant access to a personal car is very important to them is rising, and for the first time more than half of those surveyed, 52%, who intend to buy a car say they intend to choose either a fully electric, plug-in hybrid or hybrid vehicle.The Electrek discussing and referencing the EY survey, May 27th 2022.
This sounds like most people already want an EV. My own prediction was. 50% in Europe and Asia would want an EV by end 2022, but a lower level of people ready for an EV in Australia/US/Canada etc. My own prediction was more pessimistic than the EY survey result, which may be because my prediction adds the constraint of ‘given the available vehicles and prices at the time of ordering‘. The EY survey seems a little looser, and may includes some of those wanting an EV, but not yet happy with the EVs available as opposed to those announced but not yet released. This is availably limitation will likely fade away between now (2022) and 2025, but will be a limiting factor, lowering how many people chose an EV for some years to come.
Either way, what EY data suggests, is that far more people want their next car to be an EV than are currently buying EVs. The sections below I feel present a strong case for that this is in large part because of lack of availability of EVs.
ICEVs are far more available than available than EVs, to the extend that reality today is that even though people who don’t ant an EV may fear being forced to buy one, the reality is that people who do want an EV are prevented from buying one.
At one time the only people who bought EVs were those who felt it was helping the planet, as opposed to those who enjoy the thrill of a Tesla model S plaid. Today, what is needed to help the planet is not more buyers, but more EVs produced, as there is more risk from too many EV buyers for the number of available cars, than from there not being enough people wanting EVs.
Some Market Segments, including ‘affordable’ vehicles and pick-ups, have nothing.
The lack of used cars is not the only reason that EVs are expensive. The budget small car segment is entirely ignored. While it could be thought that this is because EVs are expensive, consider that one of the top 3 selling EVs worldwide is the Wuling Mini EV produced by a company part owned by GM and selling for only US$5,000.
There are factors keeping its price low in China, but it is now starting to arrive in other markets as the most affordable car on the market, with a price lower than any gasoline or petrol car.
It turns out EVs can compete on price when they try, and one of the main reasons they rarely try, is that factories that cannot meet demand now, are not about to switch to producing lower cars and thus lowering brand profits. The Tesla Model Y competes sufficiently well on price, that it could become the world best selling car in 2022. It is not only that EVs cannot be low cost, it is also that it makes no sense for brands to introduce lower cost models when their factories capable of producing EV are already overloaded. Why would Tesla introduce their often discussed, lower priced model, prior to being able to meet demand on current models?
Then there are other segments with no products available, such the now most popular segment in the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other markets, the ‘pickup’ or as it is know in some markets, the ‘ute’.
Until recently, there was no pick-up truck EV available the US, despite this being the hottest market segment.. The extremely expensive Rivian R1T arrived in late 2021 and was awarded pick up truck of the year by Motor Trend and others and the best pick-up on the market, but was at a high price and with limited availability. Finally the Ford F150 Lightning has been released, but order queues are very long, and both these vehicles are only available in the USA at this time. Competitors such as the electric versions of the Chevrolet Silverado, Dodge Ram and the Tesla Cybertruck are yet to appear anywhere.
In all manufactures are well behind that the demand for EVs. The end result is, that even if everyone wanted to buy an EV, not every one would be able to buy one.
Bans on fossil fuel vehicles: Targeting manufacturers, not consumers.
If, as evidence here suggests, there are more buyers for EVs then there are EVs already, it could seem strange the various governments feel or felt the need to propose bans on the sale of new fossil fuel vehicles. A clue could be that the ‘ban’ is on the ‘sale’, not on the purchase, so if follows the bans target sellers, not consumers, which makes sense because at least so far, it is the sellers who need compelling.
Almost all restrictions only apply to only new vehicle sales, with at this time I think at a country level only Singapore suggesting phasing out all fossil fuelled vehicles, although USA targets ending government all fossil fuelled vehicles by 2050.
If you ban new sales, usually not before 2030 or 2035, given vehicles last around 20 years, there will still be vehicles on the road for a long time.
An interesting question is what would happen if the deadline was approaching and people still wanted ICEVs? In a democracy, governments will normally do whatever wins votes, it would depend entirely on what the population overall wants. The country closest to reaching a deadline, Norway, is already very close to their 2025 target in 2022, but looking at the fine print:
If the trend present for the last few years continues, the trend line will hit zero in April 2022. This is a lot earlier than their 2025 target (which, to be clear, is not a legal requirement yet, more of a soft target agreed upon by Norway’s government).Electrek.co: Norway bans gas car sales in 2025,
The ‘ban’ is not actually a legal requirement. In reality, government targets to achieve ambitions often get pushed back if not sufficiently popular.
If EVs have not reached the point where they are what everyone wants, and meet everyone’s needs, governments will be flexible.
With production as a bottleneck, a full transition to EVs is unlikely before 2050.
A complete transition by 2050?
CATL, the worlds largest battery maker, predicts internal combustion engine vehicles will end production by 2035, and as a battery supplier, they have motive to be optimistic. Given cars on average last 20 years, some of those last mass production cars will likely be around even longer, which means even some internal combustion engine vehicles sold in 2035 could still be in use beyond 2055.
Hopefully, CATL predictions are correct, then by 2050 and then being 15 years old, those last internal combustion cars will either be getting lonely on the roads, or beginning to spend most of their time in retirement in collector garages.
A transition to even 50% EVs will not happen before 2035, and on trend, +2.0oC warming.
If EVs are 100% of new cars by 2025, it would take until 2035 to replace 50% of cars, only 5% of all cars are replaced each year. Given cars last over 20 years on average, even if all new vehicles sales are EVs, then it would still take 10 years to replace half of all cars.
Plus, the car market simply will not manage transition to 100% EVs by 2025. In 2021, EVs were 8-9% of global new car sales. To move from under 10% to 50% would be considered an extremely aggressive prediction. In summary, it is simply not feasible for the majority of cars on the road by 2035 to be EVs.
So at around the time of the critical +2.0oC warming, we will still be early in the transition, and as will be shown later, that means too early to see much, if any, of a reduction of CO2 by that time.
Vehicle production and the transition: a necessary bottleneck.
There is some truth behind the anti-EV information war.
There is a long list Anti-EV Arguments, but most are based on some reality.
Big Oil/ Big Fossil Fuel spends significant money trying to slow the transition to EVs. This creates confusion and misinformation, but behind almost all ‘anti-EV’ claims, including the emissions, there is a basis on an actual fact, even if the myths distort the details
EV car batteries can catch fire, just like mobile phone batteries, and while there is clear data that there are more fires per internal combustion car than per EV, there have been some EVs with a bad track record. Sort of like the famous mobile phone they even banned from flights, even though most phones are fine. So, not as bad as the anti-EV campaign might suggest, but there is still a potential problem with specific technologies.
Lithium and other raw materials are in limited supply right now, but over the long term what can appear as barriers, are hurdles easily cleared. There is truth in that current mining and supply chains do not support extracting the lithium required for all cars to be EVs equipped with lithium batteries, but this is not due to a shortage of lithium, just that mines require expansion to meet the increased demand. No question the world has enough lithium, although cobalt and nickel, as used in most EV batteries so far, are a more limited resource. But already batteries are moving to LFP on mass, avoiding cobalt and nickel already.
There are stories about other mining problems such as cobalt, and while cobalt mining in some countries is a problem, EVs are moving away from needing cobalt and never needed as much cobalt as is used refining oil.
Again, of course, while the electricity grid would have trouble if all cars are magically replaced with EVs overnight, there is clear data that the grid has in the past been able increase supply as demand rises, at a faster rate that would be needed to meet the demand as EV numbers increase.
And then there is the long tailpipe argument.
The Long Tailpipe Claims: A dirty little secret?
Of course, the electricity to power EVs must be generated, and the “long tailpipe” argument is that EVS have a “dirty little secret” that, on current power grids, the electricity used per EV results in more emissions, than the emissions from a gasoline or diesel car.
The vast majority of studies have concluded that, even if an EV were charged from a 100% coal-powered grid, it would still emit less pollutants per mile than an average ICE vehicle. Furthermore, no such ideally dirty grid exists.Cleantechnica page discussing issues including “long tailpipe”
Driving EVs on electricity from real world grids is perfectly emissions free, but it is not worse than for fossil fuelled cars .
There are many fake stories on how there is some conspiracy hiding the EVs are not green, but the reality is the organisations applying the most scrutiny to what is needed to genuinely reduce emissions, are those trying to be green. These companies, such as Volvo who has committed to transitioning all cars to electric, are putting their reputation and their entire future on the line. While fossil fuel companies really lose nothing if we don’t believe them, and with enough marketing, in todays social media world, you can get some people to believe anything, and for them it can’t hurt sales, as no one is really buying fossil fuels because they believe it creates less emissions.
The anti-EV campaign makes claims of fire risks, and that there won’t be enough lithium, cobalt or nickel to build them, the grid can’t power them and that EVs are bad for environment.
While there are counter arguments to all these points, there is also a basis in a little truth, and it turns out while overall, EVs do reduce emissions, the overall effect replacing all EVs will result in an increase in emissions from the manufacture, before the decrease in emissions is realised. But despite there even a TEDx talk advocating people to buy hybrids instead of EVs, the only real way to provide a better environmental outcome than buying a new EV, is to delay buying a new car altogether.
Long tailpipe reality: EVs do reduce emissions, but it is no secret, that not by as much as desired.
Although, even in the worst case, and EV results in less emissions per mile/km than a fossil fuel car, without a hypothetical perfect electricity grid, and instead a dirty grid, the savings can be as low as 20%.
In the Volvo study quoted below, the lifetime vehicle ‘use phase’ emissions reduce from 41 tonnes for the ICE XC40, to 28 tonnes for the EV XC40. This is a reduction of only just over 30%, when calculated on the global average electricity generation. Sure, the reduction is far better in the EU with cleaner power, and as the grid becomes greener, EVs also become greener, but already today there is some saving.
The real issue is not the emissions from driving EVs, it is extra emissions from making EVs.
Every car results in environmental build emissions, and so far, for EVs they are worse.
How about 70% higher environmental build emissions from manufacturing an EV? BHP may have been happy to report it, but it is real, and what Volvo calculated when comparing the environmental cost per car during construction for an internal combustion car with that for building an equivalent electrical car.
There are two very significant points here:
- Every car built, as of 2022 results in additional greenhouse emissions.
- As of 2022 the Volvo measures a 70% increase in greenhouse emissions from the manufacturing of an EV over an ICE vehicle (17+7+1.4=25.4 over 14+2.1=16.1).
- There a many studies, and all unbiased studies agree, while EVs are greener in the long term, so far EVs result in more emissions at the outset.
Manufacturers are working to make building of all cars, EVs and ICE vehicles, carbon neutral, but no manufacturer is close to this goal in 2022.
Volvo study: EVs can take 7 years to offset initial extra greenhouse emissions.
The Volvo study actually confirms what many other studies have found, an EV typically comes at higher initial environmental cost, and then can repay that cost over time through lower emissions when driving. Lower, but not zero emissions when driving, because although EVs have zero ‘tailpipe’ emissions, in every country some of the electricity to power EVs comes from fossil fuels and thus generates emissions, so while it is clear there is always a reduction in emissions per distance travelled, in some countries it is quite a small reduction.
The Volvo study is not particularly new, but it does compare two theoretically matching vehicles from the same supplier. This turns out to be a tough comparison, as the Volvo internal combustion car is considered extremely efficient, as with many EVs based on internal combustion cars, the Volvo EV in question attracts criticism for being inefficient. On the plus, side, if the EVs wins this comparison, then the case for EVs must be sound.
And, surprise, surprise, the EV does win over a full car lifetime. How much it wins depends on how green the electricity supply available. On the current global mix of electricity (table 6 of the above report) and using data for average driving distances for the UK of 6,800 miles per year (data from page as at Jun 2022), and the USA(page dated Jan 2022, but source data dated 2019) of 14,263 milers per year, the following somewhat scary data emerges. The EU28 mix does not state a date for that mix, but is assumed to be as of 2020. The ’28’ is the number of European members, not a date. The ‘wind’ figure is given as the ‘greenest’ possible energy with current technology.
|Break Even (km)||Break Even (miles)||Years (UK)||Years(US)|
|XC40 Recharge, Global Electricity Mix/XC40 ICE||146000||91250||13.4||6.4|
|XC40 Recharge, EU28 Electricity Mix/XC40 ICE||84000||52500||7.7||3.7|
|XC40 Recharge, Wind Electricity/XC40 ICE||47000||29375||4.3||2.1|
The UK should have the closer to the EU28 mix, so in the UK it would be close to 7 years. The US I am guessing would have the world average energy mix, so again, around 7 years to offset the those extra emissions during manufacture.
Implications: Interpreting the Volvo study.
It will get better, the goal was to identify what can be improved.
The focus of Volvo was to identify all sources of emissions so the company can ensure that the Volvo transition to EVs can be seen as “green”. For example, while the report found the build of an EV to produce 170% of the emissions of building their reference car, Volvo as a result formulated a plan to reduce the emissions in manufacture by 25% from current levels by 2025.
Volvo Cars’ strategy of aiming to reduce the Carbon Footprint from the Materials production and refining phase by 25% per average vehicle from 2018 to 2025 is an ambitious start towards achieving net zero Carbon Footprint emissions by 2040.From Volvo PDF report above.
So Volvo will reduce manufacture emissions to 75% of current levels. Now 75% of 170% is 127%, which means the number of years needed before emissions are reduce will be less than half for Volvos from 2025.
The Cars Volvo cars chosen were not really equivalent, but more a worst case example.
It sounds equivalent: Volvo XC40 vs electric Volvo XC40. However the regular Volvo XC40 is a front wheel drive car that accelerates from 0-100km (0-60) in 8.4 seconds, compared to the electric car that accelerates from 0-100km (0-60) in 4.9 seconds. Would you really expect the great efficiency? Further, the XC40 EV is much heavier, and less efficient than otherwise similar cars that are designed from the outset to be electric. This is is often the case with cars that were originally designed to have an internal combustion engine and are then ‘electrified’, although these are the cars most easily compared, as there are both EV and ICEV variants.
Further, the battery chemistry of the XC40 is not the most ‘green’ available, and uses NCM chemistry and not the LPF chemistry that is taking over as the EV battery of choice. Going forward, the contribution to emissions from production of batteries will decrease.
Beyond the Volvo study: What about EVs increasing the number of cars sold?
Increased cars means increased emissions: Could EVs result in extra car sales?
The Volvo study compares the emissions of producing a modern internal combustions vehicle, looking at the impact of a person buying an EV instead. This assumes the same total number of cars are sold, and that everyone buying an EV had already decided by buy a car anyway.
On this basis, the contribution to emissions is the increase in ‘build emissions‘ from making an EV instead of an ICE vehicle. In the study, this the 25 tonnes making EV XC40, in place of the 16 tonnes from making an ICE XC40, which is 9 additional tonnes.
But what if EVs cause people to buy extra cars? What if some people buying EVs, only decided to buy a car in order to get an EV? In this case, the EV being built is not instead of an ICE car being built, so the entire 25 tonnes of emissions, are all extra emissions, as outlined below.
How Increased EV sales normally means less older ICE vehicles and less ‘use phase’ emissions.
The person buying the ‘extra car’, will as a result have one more car, or more likely they sell or trade one car they had already, passing on the extra car to someone else. But in a world of 1.5 billions cars, the extra car sale means there are now 1.5 billion and 1 cars, which means in the end, either:
- Someone owns one more car than they would have otherwise.
- One car goes to the scrap yard.
Case 1: Perhaps the person buying the new EV, who does not need to replace that ICE vehicle, and is buying an EV in addition, in order to enable ’emission free motoring’ when possible, but still allowing them able to fall back to the ICE vehicle for long trips, or other occasions. Or more, they sell or trade their old ICE vehicle, and someone else gets an extra car they can keep, or they in turn either sell or trade a car they owned previously. In the end, some, perhaps someone who had no car before, ends up with one extra car.
Case 2: At some point in the possible chain reaction of people buying one car and possibly selling another, someone has an old car that is no sellable, and that car gets scrapped. Annually, a lot of cars get scrapped, statistically, a rise in the number of cars sold is likely to end up in more cars being scrapped. At some point, many old ICE vehicles are likely to become unsaleable.
For case 1, perhaps a new person is now driving the old ICEV, which could also mean that now someone owns else an extra car, so the total distance drive, and thus as with case 2, ‘use case emissions’, does not increase. However, even if there is no rise in ‘use case emissions’, there is a rise on one extra car in ‘build emissions’.
The extra vehicle problem: How the savings breakdown without that one less ICEV?
The study focus on an EV offsetting the difference between an ICEV and and EV being built. The assumption is that one more EV being built means one less ICEV will be built. But what if the purchase of an EV simply increases the number of cars sold, and is not a substitute for an ICEV being built?
When a person choses the XC40 recharge, the ‘build emissions’ are 25.4 CO2 units, 9.3 more than for the traditional XC40 at 16.1 CO2 units. The difference is 9.4 units, which over the life of the car will in theory be offset. But what if the electric car was simply the building of an extra vehicle, and if there were no EVs, there would have been no sale at all? Then the entire 25 CO2 units now need to be recovered! This would take 2.4 times as long, which means the 7 years becomes 7×2.4= 16.8 years!
In summary, if a person who was going to buy a new car anyway choses an EV, then the same total number of cars are built, and after sufficient years the additional emissions over the ICEV will be offset. However, if a person who was not already going to buy an EV is motivated to buy an EV, then it is possible the missions from building that EV will never be offset.
Emissions don’t stop at car build emissions.
EVs create demand for new car factories.
The two largest EV makers in the world at this time, Tesla and BYD, have never been volume brands in ICE vehicles, which means as they ramp up volumes, they are both building more and more factories. The automotive industry will see significant disruption with the transition to EVs, and new brands will likely replace many existing brands, and lead to more new factories. Even carmakers like VW, who already have car factories, find that EVs are best built in new factories.
EVs could create demand for expanding mining, expanding production of mining equipment.
Good news for a change. Although building EVs can create additional demand for materials not currently mined at the volumes EVs could require, this looks like it will not be the case. Batteries are moving away from nickel and cobalt, leaving lithium as the only battery specific ingredient, and lithium prices are predicted to fall as a result of mines already on track.
In fact, since cars once built last 20 years, and fossil fuels need to be continually consumed, moving to EVs reduces the amount of mining required, and reduced fossil fuel mining will reduce mining equipment that needs o be replaced or repaired.
The EV transition alone won’t save the planet, and can’t be rushed.
An EV transition enables emission reduction, but doesn’t DO the reduction.
Or, at least EVs themselves don’t do much of the reduction. Even with the current, typically dirty grid, moving to EVs alone results in some emissions reduction, but the big dividend from moving to EVs will only come when the grid has been cleaned up.
At first it seems the catch 22, is that the big dividend from cleaning up the grid, will only come when EVs have at least mostly replaced fossil fuelled vehicles.
But the surprise is, that EVs can actually help clean up the grid. I was only some time after this page had been written, when looking at what happens to the grid as a result of the transition to EVs, that I realised EV transition actually help the grid to become greener!
So we have to transition the grid to clean energy, and transition vehicles to EVs. However, with an estimated 1.5 billion vehicles to transition, and an estimated 10,000 coal power plants.
Without at least a partial the transition to EVs, there would be only half the benefit from cleaning up electricity generation, and thus without EVs, the their less incentive to clean up the grid.
The problem becomes a classic chicken and egg problem. Despite the claims that it is a secret that making EVs can produce more emissions than making ICEVs, and that unless run on clean electricity, while there are reduced emissions, there are still emissions.
The transition to EVs itself, if rushed, could increase emissions.
It turns out, there is no possible transition to EVs, without a period of increased emissions, and as that is followed by a longer period of reduction in emissions, the sooner we start, the better. The sooner we start, the sooner we reach the point when the climate wins, and we can begin to begin claw back of those extra emissions.
However as the ‘extra vehicle‘ problem highlights, any increase in the total number of vehicles produced each year, increases overall emissions. While the EV transition itself can enable a cleaner grid, which means the later in any transition any ‘extra vehicles’ are produced, the more likely any emissions would be minimised. Still, forcing people to abandon their old vehicles, rather than waiting for new car sales to see cars are eventually replaced, would never be environmentally sound.
The key points here are, the transition will not be fast, and much of the transition will not be green.
- new factories
- new mines for different materials
- EVs that take years to offset productions emissions.
As the increased emissions during the transition arise from manufacturing things, accelerating the transition, and as a result making more ‘things’ is to be avoided.
We can however manage the transition, and take steps to reduce the negative impact of the transition.
Every EV replacing an ICEV takes years to have any positive impact.
Driving EVs means less emissions, but currently it typically takes 7 years to offset the additional emissions from making an EV like the Volvo XC40 EV than the ICE versions of the same vehicle. This would be a problem if cars only last 7 years, but as cars typically last close to 20 years, in the long term all is good.
But, as EV sales ramp up and sales increase each year, most EVs for may years will be young EVs. This, combined with other factors during the transition, including early retiring combustion engine cars, pushes climate wins back decades.
I hear claims like “if everyone suddenly had an EV, it would overload the power grid”, and from EV supporters claims like “if everyone suddenly had an EV, emissions would be far lower”.
The problem with thoughts about a world where everyone has an EV, is that the journey to get there is such a significant journey that we will be older and different by the end of the journey. The world is transformed during the journey.
There are an estimated 1.5 billion cars in the world in 2022, and with annual sales of around 80 million, replacing them all would take over 18 years, and that is assuming a completely orderly sequence, with no car already replaced needing a new replacement before all cars had their turn.
So while in a perfect world, we could have all EVs by 2040 if all internal combustion engine car sales were banned tomorrow, in practice, a full transition to all EVs will most likely not even be complete before 2050.
Yes, driving EVs, instead of driving internal combustion engine vehicles, contrary to “long tailpipe” stories, does reduce emissions, but building EVs generates extra emissions. While even when powered, by electricity generated by fossil fuels, over their full lifetime EVs always have less emissions, it takes time to offset the emissions at time of manufacture.
This means that during what is seen as a critical period for climate change, it is all about the transition to EVs, not the world where everyone already has an EV.
The worry is not about the destination, it is about the journey.
The bad news is EVs won’t help in time to keep global warming below +2.0oC, or reduce emissions in the critical years between now and around 2040. The problem is not the ‘long tailpipe argument‘, quoted in there are many accounts of how, because electricity generation creates emissions, and EVs are worse for the environment than ICEV (internal combustion vehicles). Such claims have been proved false over and over, and there are already many web pages, such as this one by clean technical, proving that over their lifetime, EVs result in less emissions, even with today’s dirty electricity.
The challenge is instead, that every new car begins life with significant emissions created when building the car, and those emissions are currently higher for EVs than for ICE cars. While over time, EVs make up for any difference, it does take time.
Anti EV campaigns often point out problems that would result if overnight all cars became EVs. The grid would never handle it etc.. Of course producing cars to replace every ICEV overnight is also impossible, as is distributing those cars to consumers over night. Reality is the transition takes time. In fact the ideal transition rate, is for vehicle purchases to remain at the current level.
Every new car built being an EV would be a good thing, but increasing the number of new cars would harm the environment. EVs, even when powered by “dirty” electricity, result in less emissions than running ICE vehicles, so when all cars are EVs, there will be less emissions.
The emissions from cars being driven is not the whole story, it is also necessary to minimise emissions from cars being built. Every EV that replaces an ICEV reduces emissions every day it is one the road, but it takes a number of years to offset the emissions from the building the vehicle. So emissions there are a number of ‘increased emissions’ years when emissions are higher than if the old ICEV had remained on the road, then after the vehicle has had enough years offset those emissions, years of ‘reduced emissions years’ will follow for the rest of the life of the vehicle. This means during the transition, emissions may have a number of years where they increase, before the real payback is achieved. The transition, unless carefully managed, could result in increased emissions, even for as long as 20 to even 30 years.
Yes, we still need to transition to EVs. The main transition requirement, is that we don’t increase the rate of building cars in order to rush the migration and get people into EVs sooner. Around 5% of cars become scrap per year, and as long as building EVs is capped at that replacement rate, we have avoided the worst messing up the transition. And even if we don’t mess up, even with a perfect EV transition, it will be at least 2040 before we reap the rewards. Yes we need EVs, but EVs alone will do little to help during a very critical period of time for climate change.
Avoiding the ‘extra car’ problem: no production increases.
The optimum transition to EVs is all about balance. Balancing the emissions produced from making EVs against the reduced emissions from driving EVs rather than ICEVs, against the production emissions from building EVs.
However as noted in the extra vehicle problem, any time an the building an EV does, not result in the building of one less ICEV, entire build emissions of that EV add to global emissions initially, and may never be offset.
This means any rise in the total vehicle production per year represents results in an increase overall emissions that may never be offset.
Without a fundamental change in the emissions from production, increasing the rate of vehicle production to accelerate the transition, would further damage the environment.
We can speed up the transition.
Only buy an EV if you really need to buy a new car, not just to save the planet. And, while EVs can be simply better, no new car owners should not feel morally superior, at least until they have owned the same car for several years.
Could Alternatives Accelerate a transition building EVs?
The hydrogen alternative.
Moving to hydrogen instead of EVs, is worse, not better. Firstly, ‘green hydrogen’, made by splitting water using electricity, results in a need for 3x as much electricity as battery EVs require. This means whatever the ‘long tailpipe’ emissions from producing electricity, these emissions would be 3x higher with hydrogen cars.
Further, more infrastructure is required for hydrogen refuelling, and building that infrastructure would require more resources than mining the ingredients for batteries will require.
Overall, hydrogen cars and infrastructure would result in a far longer transition, and require more power generation once the transition is complete.
The Toyota alternate plan keeps fossil fuels beyond 2050.
Toyota is still pushing for the world to move to hybrids, improving fuel efficiency, but continuing the reliance on fossil fuels. Hybrid still require batteries, although smaller ones, but also typically require more aluminium, the major source of extra emissions with EVs from the Volvo study.
While Toyota proposes that moving to hybrids will allow battery supplies to stretch further, the large battery makers see no problem supplying enough batteries for full EVs, and are not the constraint. Now the battery industry is largely shifting LFP batteries, the only critical element is lithium, and already mining initiates in place are predicted to result in a fall in the price of lithium over the next few years.
Overall, given batteries are not really a problem, no one, not even the fossil fuel industry, has supported the claims of how hybrids rather than EVs produces a better result for the environment.
Buying an EV can be ‘green’, just don’t buy a new car until you need to.
The biggest cost to the transition is all the new cars that must be built. The biggest risk is the ‘build emissions’ will outweigh the reduced emissions from EVs, which will happen if too many people buy new cars before they need to buy new cars.
An alternative to people buying new cars can be the conversion of existing cars to electric power, and it is not as difficult as it may seem. There are a variety of conversion solutions, which provide reduced driving emissions, with very low build emissions. If only governments would provide incentives for conversions over new car purchases, the world could be that little bit ‘greener’.
It’s not all bad news, things should get better.
The scenario where the transition to EVs will do little reduce emissions before 2050, is the one where transitioning to EVs is the only step take to reduce emissions. In reality, there are many other initiatives in place that will reduce build emissions, and clean up power generation, and if these other initiatives progress at all, the impact of producing EVs is reduced, and the savings from driving EVs is increased.
Hopefully but the time EVs become so competitive that their sales would be likely to generate a significant surge in car total production, most of the problems from increased new car production will be far less significant.
EVs, provide benefits beyond reducing global emissions.
By 2050, we could have roads completely dominated by EVs. Which means if we do have green power generation at that time, the reduction in emissions from having green power will be doubled.
However, in the meantime, not only are total emissions even in the worst case reduced, the emissions are also moved away from people. Not great for anyone where the government decides the solution to a need for increased power is to build a new, dirty fossil fuel plant in your neighbourhood, but for the vast majority of people on the planet, vehicles that do not pollute will mean cleaner urban environments, no matter what. Quieter too.
The reduce servicing requirements of EVs will also mean less waste disposal is required.
There is progress towards eliminating and offsetting build emissions altogether.
Volvo target reducing build emissions by around 30% by 2030, and as with other manufactures has plans to eventually reach carbon neutrality. In the 2030s, when the more EVs are being sold, build emissions should already be much lower.
EVs Can enable far more than just clean transport.
Solar and wind are now the lowest cost sources of power, but they do not provide a full solution without storage. While storage is being added to the grid, this is at a much lower rate than storage is being deployed in vehicles. If vehicle to the grid becomes a reality, then EVs can play a role beyond transport.
Green? A little already, but very if there is progress on renewables.
EVs are not scam, but don’t do that much to solve the climate crisis alone. EVs neither have worse lifetime emissions than fossil fuelled vehicles, nor are they immediate saviour of the planet, at least without a parallel clean up of power generation.
The only situation where EVs would only be worse for the planet, is in the unlikely scenario where a rush to EVs, triggers a boom in car manufacturing well beyond normal levels, and resulting in people replacing even still quite new, perfectly sound, ICE vehicles with EVs earlier than is ideal.
The full transition to EVs seems unlikely before 2050, and with global warming on trend to reach +1.5oC, this decade, and +2.0oC during the 2030s, reductions from EVs alone will do little avoid these temperature points. To stop reaching +1.5oC, or even +2.0oC requires far more than just a move to EVs, and otherwise ‘business largely as usual’. We may soon learn if climate change really is just an inconvenience, or worse.
The EVs transition can provide a big boost for improving the power grid.
The transition to EVs means drivers shift their spending from fossil fuels to to electricity, and thus enables consumers to use their fuel expenditure to help fund fund energy operators adding renewables to the gid., helping to fund the addition of renewables to the grid, without the need to increase costs to consumers.
A long transition to EVs, and by necessity.
The transition will be driven by consumer demand, and market and government pressure on manufacturers to satisfy that demand, but constrained by production, as car manufacturing only replaces 5% of all vehicles per year, and accelerating production would be more damaging than living longer with ICEVs.
The biggest threat to the transition is the unsolved EV problem is enabling everyone to be able to charge at home, and from ideally green power sources.
- 2022 August 12: Major update to more reflect findings on what impacts the transition timeframe.
- 2022 June 26: Only rewording to try to improve clarity.