How Green is an Electric Car?

With over 400,000 preorders before its release, the highly-anticipated landmark car for the digital generation, Tesla Model 3, is finally going to meet its new owners. Fans love the speed and luxury Tesla brings with its electric offering. Yet most importantly, customers believe that they are on the mission to save the Earth by driving the so called “zero-emission cars”. Electric cars have marketed themselves as the “green” car of the future, by reducing customers’ carbon footprint to combat global warming. For instance, Nissan LEAF has a commercial that shows a polar bear moving out of its melting ice-cap home, implying the impact of global warming, and swims ashore to an owner of a 100% electric LEAF, giving him a hug. The European car brand Renault uses “100% Electric, 0% Emission” as slogan to market its electric models.

However, are electric cars really green alternatives to internal combustion cars? I am not buying the fact. I believe these advertisements and commercials are misleading and they do not tell the full truth.

What is true, however, is that electronic cars have zero tailpipe emission. Matter of fact, since these cars do not burn fuel, they do not even have a tailpipe. However, just because a car does not burn fuel, it does not mean it has no carbon footprint attached to it.

About 20–36% of electric cars’ CO2 emission comes from manufacturing, comparing to 17% for internal combustion cars. To put them into perspective, an electric car just coming out of production is already responsible for 25,000 lbs. of CO2, whereas for the conventional car it is about 16,000lbs. The majority of that emission comes from the production and handling of the lithium batteries. Mining of lithium to build the batteries for the electric cars is not at all a green activity but quite the opposite. It is not only polluting but also CO2 intensive. These batteries are usually produced abroad, thus shipping these butteries will consume a lot of fuel as well. The manufacturing process also consumes electricity that is heavily powered by power plants that use fossil fuel.

Although electric cars do not run on gasoline, they need to run on something, and that is electricity charged from charging stations whether in public or at home. As we know, generation of electricity emits ample CO2. Yes, there are renewable energy sources, but, according to the Energy Information Administration, that only account for about 14% of energy produced in the U.S. On the other hand, about 65% of electricity generated in the U.S. come from burning fossil fuels like coal. Therefore, driving an electric car is not all that “0% emission.” Vinod Khosla, Co-Founder of Sun Microsystems, puts it in the best way: “Electric cars are coal-powered cars.”

Therefore, driving electric cars is really shifting CO2 emission from tailpipes to factory and power plant smokestacks. However, if we account for all of the externalities from increasing factory and power plant activities, we might find ourselves in adversity. Externalities aside from CO2 emission, such as pollution from mining, factory wastes, battery disposals and etc., critically affects human health. A study conducted by the National Academy of Science estimates that if people use 10% more of Gasoline Cars in the next 5 years, we will see an increase of 870 deaths annually due to air pollution. However, if people use 10% more of Electric Cars in the next 5 years, we will see an increase of 1,617 deaths annually due to air pollution, about twice the amount.

I am not arguing against a future where the only cars on the roads are electric cars. Electric cars might the first step, but definitely not the solution. The message I wish to deliver is merely owning an electric car does not do much for saving the planet. There are so many more things we have to do in addition to really “go green.” Also, I hope for everyday consumers like us to not be fooled by marketers and blindly believe whatever is fed to you from the TV commercials. Especially when it comes to purchasing technologies that we might not entirely understand, it is better to do a little research than to be misled by those who hopes to take advantage of us.