Electric vehicles have lower tailpipe emissions compared to fossil fuel-burning cars, but they don’t go scot-free when it comes to the environment. Mining the raw materials for batteries is dirty business, and manufacturing and charging them can produce emissions. Those overlooked indirect emissions have led skeptics to argue whether EVs are really as green as touted.
New research from Yale University should put those arguments to rest. The study finds that the total indirect emissions from EVs pale in comparison to the indirect emissions from fossil fuel-powered vehicles. And if a carbon price is placed on all the emissions, both direct and indirect, from a vehicle’s full life cycle, EVs become far more attractive to buyers.
The electric car market is growing rapidly, despite the pandemic. Many countries are incentivizing and promoting wider adoption of EVs as a tool to fight climate change. A few carmakers have even promised to convert their entire line-ups to battery-powered vehicles. Some analysts warn that increased electrification could lead to high indirect emissions from electricity and battery production.
But those indirect emissions also apply to fossil fuel-powered vehicles. And no transport policies today regulate vehicle emissions along their entire life cycle.
So the Yale team used a combination of life cycle assessment and energy modeling to analyze the total life-cycle emissions of conventional vehicles versus EVs. Then they calculated a carbon price on those emissions to see what effect that would have on the vehicle market.
Their findings, reported in the journal Nature Communications, show that putting a carbon price only on direct tailpipe emissions would lead to a nearly complete phase–out of fossil fuel vehicles. And if both direct and indirect emissions were taxed, this phase-out would speed up. At the same time, EV sales would increase because of their overall significantly less life-cycle emissions.
Plus, as the share of renewables grows over the next and electricity sources become cleaner, they write “large–scale adoption of electric vehicles is able to reduce CO2 emissions through more channels than previously expected.”
“The surprising element was how much lower the emissions of electric vehicles were,” said Stephanie Weber, a postdoctoral researcher in the Yale School of Environment in a press release. “The supply chain for combustion vehicles is just so dirty that electric vehicles can’t surpass them, even when you factor in indirect emissions.”
Source: Paul Wolfram et al. Pricing indirect emissions accelerates low-carbon transition of US light vehicle sector. Nat. Commun. 2021.
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