A study by the IFO think tank in Munich found that electric vehicles in Germany emit 11 percent to 28 percent more carbon dioxide than their diesel counterparts. The study considered the production of batteries as well as the German electricity mix in making this determination. Germany spent thousands of euros on electric car subsidies per vehicle to put a million electric vehicles on the road, but those subsidies have done nothing to reach the country’s greenhouse gas emission targets. This is just the latest example of government programs expecting one outcome and getting quite another, instead. To some it is ironic; to others it is funny. At IER, we believe it to be sad, as it is a waste of time and money that could be better put to use solving real problems.
The researchers compared the carbon dioxide output for a Tesla Model 3 (electric) and a Mercedes C220d sedan (diesel). The Mercedes releases about 141 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer driven, including the carbon emitted to drill, refine, and transport its fuel. The Tesla releases between 156 and 181 grams, including battery production. Mining and processing the lithium, cobalt, and manganese used for batteries consume a lot of energy. A Tesla Model 3 battery, for example, represents between 11 and 15 metric tons of carbon dioxide. Given a battery lifetime of 10 years and an annual travel distance of 15,000 kilometers, 73 to 98 grams of carbon dioxide are emitted per kilometer.
Germany’s growing reliance on coal for electricity generation was also considered in the study. The country relies on coal when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining. As a result, charging a Tesla in Bavaria releases about 83 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer driven.
The European Union also provides benefits for manufacturers of electric vehicles, by allowing them to claim zero emissions under its strict emissions limits. Not all European countries may emit more carbon dioxide from electric vehicles than from diesel or gasoline vehicles, however. In France, for example, electric vehicles may emit less carbon dioxide than diesel vehicles because France gets the majority of its electricity from nuclear power. But in many other European countries, that is certainly not the case.
According to the German researchers, the European Union target of 59 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer by 2030 corresponds to a “technically unrealistic” consumption of 2.2 liters of diesel or 2.6 liters of gasoline per 100 kilometers. The researchers believe it would be preferable to look at other sources of power for automobiles—for example, methane engines, “whose emissions are one-third less than those of diesel motors.”
A study in 2017 by researchers at the University of Michigan found that the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by electric cars varied wildly by country. The study found that an electric car recharged by a coal-fired plant produces as much carbon dioxide as a gasoline-powered car that gets 29 miles per gallon, which is a slightly higher efficiency than the 25.2 miles per gallon that is the average of all the cars, SUVs, vans, and light trucks sold in the United States over the past year. If the electricity comes from a natural gas plant, recharging a plug-in electric vehicle is akin to driving a car that gets 58 miles per gallon.
Using the U.S. electricity mix, which is generated mainly be fossil fuels (about 64 percent), the researchers at the University of Michigan found that the average plug-in vehicle produces as much carbon dioxide as a conventional car that gets 55.4 miles per gallon. In China, which has been pushing widespread adoption of electric vehicles, the cars emit as much carbon dioxide as a car that gets 40 miles per gallon, due in large part to their heavy dependence on coal.
Note that the above findings are optimistic for electric vehicles because the researchers at the University of Michigan did not take into account the additional substantial carbon dioxide emissions in manufacturing batteries, as did the German study.
A different study from the Union of Concerned Scientists found that, depending on the type of plug-in being built, manufacturing a battery-powered car generates 15 percent to 68 percent more carbon dioxide emissions than a conventional gasoline-powered car because of the energy intensity of manufacturing batteries.
The above studies indicate that the terminology “zero emission” is a misnomer when referring to electric vehicles. Also, lawmakers should be cautious about subsidizing electric vehicles when their electricity is generated mainly by fossil fuels because they are not lowering the carbon dioxide emissions from automobiles by doing so. The old saying that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” may well apply to many of the gimmicks and work-arounds advocated by whatever group is popular with a political and media elite at any given time. Germany’s lessons should be a case study for political leaders everywhere.