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, new owners should not feel morally superior, at least until they have owned the same car for several years.
The worry is not about the destination, it is about the journey.
Driving EVs means less emissions, but currently it typically takes 7 years to offset the additional emissions from making EVs. As EV sales ramp up, most EVs will be still young, and 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.
This transition to EVs is already increasing emissions. It turns out, there is no possible transition to EVs, without a period of increased emissions. Eventually, we reach the point when the climate wins, and we can begin to begin claw back of those extra emissions.
The key points here are, the transition will not be fast, and much of the transition will not be green.
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.
How long will the transition take? 2050??
People have to want to buy and EV.
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.
So why am I more pessimistic than EY? My prediction relates to wanting to ‘buy’ (or at least order), given the available cars and prices at the time of ordering.
The EY survey seems a little looser, and includes some of those wanting an EV, but considering EVs still too expensive. This is an equation likely to change over the next 6 months, but still be a limiting factor, lowering how many people are ready to order an EV at today’s prices.
EVs have to be available.
There are long lead times for all cars at this time (April 2022), but EVs typically have even longer order lead times. Then, there are vehicles like Tesla Cybertruck, which has had production starting dates pushed back several times and at least 2 years, vehicles like the GM Silverado announced several years in advance, and market segments, such as entry level sedans and hatches, without realistically priced EVs available in most markets.
The end result is that even if everyone wanted to buy an EV, not every one would be able to buy one.
Cars normally have a long life, with only 5% replaced each year.
As I have previously calculated but will now update, the ‘lifespan’ of a cars is typically at least around 20 years, as I will explain below. and even longer in the USA.
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.
Countries do not give ‘life expectancy’ data for cars, but they do give ‘average age’, allowing an estimate of ‘life expectancy’, and it can be said approximately half of all cars below ‘average age’, and another half older than average age. Note that the statistic is ‘average age of vehicles on the road’, rather than just a simple average. The more time a vehicle is on the road, the more it affects the data, eliminating the potential skew from vintage cars.
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 just 2x average age.
Using the same formula, as the average age of vehicles driving in the USA being, the lifespan of car in the USA should be around 24 years, although again, some cars do live much longer.
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.
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 the figure is rising, not falling.
A full transition to EVs is unlikely before 2050, nor 50% transition by 2035.
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.
The transition to EVs is not all ‘green’.
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 chose were not equivalent and close to a worst case.
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 electric vehicle is, as is often the case with cars that were originally designed to have an internal combustion engine and are then ‘electrified’, the XC40 EV is much heavier and less efficient than otherwise similar cars that are designed from the outset to be electric.
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: EVs could 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.
Increased sales still push ICE vehicles off the road, reducing ‘use phase’ emissions.
The person buying the ‘extra car’, will as a result have one more car, or 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, but it can also mean that someone owns 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 study is ICE vs EV, what about ICE + EV?
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 car, 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, after sufficient years the additional emissions 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 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.
Alternatives to building EVs?
The hydrogen alternative.
Moving to hydrogen instead of EVs, makes no sense. 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 extend further, the large battery makers see no problem supplying enough batteries for full EVs. 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’.
There are Solutions, It’s not all bad news.
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 buying EVs is reduced, and the saving from driving EVs improves even further. Hopefully but the time EVs become so competitive that their sales would be likely to generate a significant surge in car total sales, most of the problems from increased new cars 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.
EVs are neither a scam that actually is worse than a fossil fuelled vehicle, nor an immediate saviour of the planet, at least without a clean up of power generation first.
The only situation where EVs would only be worse for the planet, is if a rush to EVs results in people replacing their perfectly sound ICE vehicles with EVs, triggering a boom in car manufacturing well beyond normal levels.
So don’t buy an EV to save the planet, but if you need to buy a new car, the best choice for the planet is an EV, although delaying buying any new car may be even better.
When the time comes that you do need to a buy a new car, buying will allow over time your purchase to help save the planet, it will only provide a small win per year for a few years to come, and every extra new car comes at an environmental cost. Anyone looking to save the planet, may be better advised to keep their old car longer, or even convert their existing car to run on electric power, and focus first on green energy for now.
The biggest unsolved EV problem is enabling everyone to be able to charge at home, and from ideally green power sources. The emissions from driving EVs are not a problem, it is just that the transition to EVs takes longer than you would think to significantly reduce emissions.
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 a move to EVs, and otherwise ‘business largely as usual’. We may soon learn if climate change really is just an inconvenience, or worse.