An electric car is better, even when running on oil

Last week was Green GB Week, a celebration of ‘clean growth’ in Britain and beyond. I was keeping an eye on it, and saw fusion energy, solar power and sustainable packaging covered. On transport, they talked about electric cars, electric trucks, electric taxis and hydrogen cars. No mention of walking or cycling, the most sustainable forms of transport. With the exception of the Hyperloop, nor was there any form of public transport – no buses, trams or trains anywhere in sight. Private cars are really the only sustainable transport technology Britain’s business department can imagine.

Electric vehicles are the default option for sustainable transport planners. The hope is that we can switch every car to electric and carry on as before. I doubt that can be done in time, or that renewable energy can provide all the extra electricity. It’s also a wasted opportunity to make better decisions about the way we travel – fewer cars and better public transport has multiple benefits, from safer cities to healthier citizens. The dependence on EVs is lazy, a way of dodging the broader issues around car culture.

On the other hand, many commentators are quick to dismiss electric vehicles, or at least remind us all that an EV is only as clean as the energy that charges the battery. The internet abounds with articles condemning the embodied energy of EVs, or the difficulty of recycling batteries, and claiming that over the lifetime of the vehicle there’s no improvement. Some of these are legitimate criticisms of a technology that is still maturing. Some are propagated by the oil industry, which has deliberately killed electric cars at least twice in the past. Unfortunately, some of the myths around EVs are recycled by both climate deniers and advocates of simple living.

As usual, the truth is somewhere in the middle. They’re not perfect. There are things to iron out. But they are fundamentally a better idea than internal combustion engines (ICE), and will eventually replace them. Because electric motors are more efficient than petrol engines, an electric car will apparently outperform an ICE car even if you charge the battery with an oil-fired power station.

Here’s a comparison of greenhouse gases from a detailed EU study, rendered more comprehensible by the Guardian:

Given the marked improvement in emissions during use, an EV will almost always pay back the higher embodied carbon. If you plug your EV into an average EU supply, it will emit half the carbon of a normal car.

The exception is coal. Coal power is so dirty that if you’re going to charge an EV with it, there’s no carbon saving. But even then, CO2 and particulate emissions will occur at the power station and not at street level in the city. Assuming the power station is out of town, coal-powered EVs will at least improve levels of urban air pollution.

In summary, electric cars are a superior technology to the internal combustion engine. They always were, and if the oil companies hadn’t been protecting their interests, we’d be driving them already. Sustainable transport will involve more than cars, and preferably far fewer cars. But where cars are necessary, we shouldn’t be afraid to champion EVs.


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