Challenging the virtue of "Green Cars"

WSJ: Green Cars Have a Dirty Little Secret

Electric cars are promoted as the chic harbinger of an environmentally benign future. Ads assure us of "zero emissions," and President Obama has promised a million on the road by 2015. With sales for 2012 coming in at about 50,000, that million-car figure is a pipe dream. Consumers remain wary of the cars' limited range, higher price and the logistics of battery-charging. But for those who do own an electric car, at least there is the consolation that it's truly green, right? Not really.

For proponents such as the actor and activist Leonardo DiCaprio, the main argument is that their electric cars—whether it's a $100,000 Fisker Karma (Mr. DiCaprio's ride) or a $28,000 Nissan Leaf—don't contribute to global warming. And, sure, electric cars don't emit carbon-dioxide on the road. But the energy used for their manufacture and continual battery charges certainly does—far more than most people realize.

A 2012 comprehensive life-cycle analysis in Journal of Industrial Ecology shows that almost half the lifetime carbon-dioxide emissions from an electric car come from the energy used to produce the car, especially the battery. The mining of lithium, for instance, is a less than green activity. By contrast, the manufacture of a gas-powered car accounts for 17% of its lifetime carbon-dioxide emissions. When an electric car rolls off the production line, it has already been responsible for 30,000 pounds of carbon-dioxide emission. The amount for making a conventional car: 14,000 pounds.

While electric-car owners may cruise around feeling virtuous, they still recharge using electricity overwhelmingly produced with fossil fuels. Thus, the life-cycle analysis shows that for every mile driven, the average electric car indirectly emits about six ounces of carbon-dioxide. This is still a lot better than a similar-size conventional car, which emits about 12 ounces per mile. But remember, the production of the electric car has already resulted in sizeable emissions—the equivalent of 80,000 miles of travel in the vehicle.

So unless the electric car is driven a lot, it will never get ahead environmentally. And that turns out to be a challenge. Consider the Nissan Leaf. It has only a 73-mile range per charge. Drivers attempting long road trips, as in one BBC test drive, have reported that recharging takes so long that the average speed is close to six miles per hour—a bit faster than your average jogger.

To make matters worse, the batteries in electric cars fade with time, just as they do in a cellphone. Nissan estimates that after five years, the less effective batteries in a typical Leaf bring the range down to 55 miles. As the MIT Technology Review cautioned last year: "Don't Drive Your Nissan Leaf Too Much."

If a typical electric car is driven 50,000 miles over its lifetime, the huge initial emissions from its manufacture means the car will actually have put more carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere than a similar-size gasoline-powered car driven the same number of miles.
Comment: I had not considered the total-life-cycle energy use of an electric car. Very interesting


  1. thanks--and I personally think Lomborg is being rather optimistic. Hybrids and electric cars tend not to be a person's primary car, so you end up with the environmental cost of building the garage, too.

    (my take; electrics are somewhat worse for the environment than a typical half ton pickup)

  2. The more this gets out, the better. Too bad it will become common knowledge only after our tax dollars pay for installation of garage charging stations for all the people who buy one...

  3. This is just my personal opinion, although many others have come to this view as well. I don't think that the government or the powers that be could hardly care less about "the environment." I'm sure there are many naive and gullible bureaucrats who really do believe this tripe, but these governmental mandates on the transportation industry have virtually nothing to do with stopping global warming. The powers that be just want to control society more and more and an excellent way to do that is to impose greater regulations on the whole transportation industry. There is political motivation behind all of these automobile and light rail programs and it has everything to do with power and controlling society.

  4. If the government really cared about "man made global warming," then why every time I've been in Minnesota are they spraying chemtrails virtually every day? Most people think that chemtrails, if they do anything related to global warming, probably make the earth warmer by trapping all the heat in and now allowing natural cooling that would otherwise take place.


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