Are electric cars worse than diesel?

Via FTAlphaville:

We admire German economist Hans-Werner Sinn for taking it upon himself to warn us that driving an electric vehicle is a halfhearted fix to global warming. From The Guardian’s comment pages:

Electric vehicles also emit substantial amounts of CO2, the only difference being that the exhaust is released at a remove — that is, at the power plant. As long as coal- or gas-fired power plants are needed to ensure energy supply during the “dark doldrums” when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining, EVs, like ICE vehicles, run partly on hydrocarbons. And even when they are charged with solar- or wind-generated energy, enormous amounts of fossil fuels are used to produce EV batteries in China and elsewhere, offsetting the supposed emissions reduction.

All too true.

We don’t like the greenwashing and virtue-signalling surrounding the switch from cars designed around the internal combustion engine to battery-powered ones. Sinn, though, is overstating the case to argue “EVs produce more CO2 than diesel”.

Take the article’s following claim:

Data published by VW confirmed that its e-Rabbit [or e-Golf, as it is more commonly known] vehicle emits slightly more CO2 than its Rabbit Diesel within the German energy mix.

Before we delve into the ins and outs of this, we want to touch on a point raised by the FT’s German industry correspondent Joe Miller, who flagged that — even if Sinn’s point on CO2 emissions is correct — it discards the fact that electric vehicles are not spewing nitrogen oxides on to our roads, contributing substantially to rising numbers of people experiencing breathing difficulties in major towns and cities.

It turns out, however, that the point on CO2 emission is also misleading at best.

How so? Well the claim, based on the chart below, is not an out-and-out lie:

But plenty of phoney assumptions are at play here.

For starters, it’s odd to focus on the ‘German mix’ when the article is an attack on EU policy to reduce emissions.

Germany is abnormally reliant on coal: it far exceeds the EU average in terms of CO2 emissions related to energy use as a result. But its carmakers sell vehicles across the region. And when we look at the CO2 emitted by the e-Golf under a standard EU energy mix, using less coal, then it is less environmentally damaging than its diesel equivalent.

To be fair, Sinn does mention this in the article. What he neglects to mention, however, is that developments in battery technology are expected to elongate ranges and reduce the need for recharges.

It is odd that this is not mentioned, as the VW report he links to features ample evidence of this.

Take the following two charts.

The top one shows the climate impact of today’s Golf models, with the electric option having a range of 253 kilometres. Fast forward to 2030, and we see that VW expects the electric Golf option to have a range of 438km, requiring far fewer recharges — and therefore less reliance on whatever energy sources Germany is using a decade from now.

What Sinn also ignores is that Volkswagen earlier this month unveiled a more modern cousin to the e-Golf in the ID.3. Not only does the ID. 3 have a far better range, but also features a battery made in a Zwickau car plant that relies as much as possible on green energy.

We’re not going to pretend like electric vehicles are a panacea. Apart from Sinn’s worries, there are concerns over the energy required to make batteries, and the provenance of the rare metals used to manufacture them. But given the march of technological process in everything from semiconductors to fuel efficiency over the past few decades, electric vehicles will almost certainly not be as damaging as those of today.

The internal combustion engine is nearing its death. To claim otherwise is to place faith in a status quo that will not only kill the planet, but German car manufacturers too.

David Llewellyn-Smith
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