Life Cycle Analysis of E-Pickups Shows They're Worse than Small ICE Cars

The upfront carbon emitted building an F-150 must be compared to other options.

Ford in the City
Ford F150 Lightning in the City.

Ford

Embodied carbon has been defined as "the total of the net carbon emissions from all the energy used in the processes to produce a product." It is a terrible name because the word "embody" is defined as "include or contain (something) as a constituent part" and it is not included or embodied in a product—it's in the air already.

As architect Elrond Burrell noted: "The emissions burb/vomit/spike for product manufacture and construction literally happens when it is built. It's not "embodied" it's already emitted. So it's critical in terms of keeping it out of the atmosphere this decade." This is why I have called them "upfront carbon emissions," a term that is actually becoming more widely used.

In past writing on Treehugger, I have been stressing the upfront carbon emissions in the building industry, because it has been historically ignored. Buildings last a long time, while our window to keep under the carbon budget required to hold global heating under 1.5°C is short. But with most products, from iPhones to pickup trucks, one has to look at the "life cycle carbon," which includes the upfront emissions, the operating emissions, and the end-of-life emissions. These have also been historically ignored for the same reasons as they were in buildings–the operating emissions were so dominant that everything else was barely noticed. But with electrification, this all changes. and it's time to take life cycle analyses (LCA) very seriously indeed.

Ford in tunnel

Ford

Let's consider the Ford F-150 Lightning electric pickup truck. According to The Guardian, automotive experts consider it a "huge" deal for the shift to low-emission vehicles. Treehugger's Eduardo Garcia explains why President Joe Biden's plans depend on it:

"But the success of this plan will hinge on whether large electric vehicles like the F-150 become mainstream. That’s because American drivers prefer large cars—in 2019,  seven out of every 10 cars sold in the U.S. fall into the 'large' category that includes SUVs, pickup trucks, and vans. That’s the market sector that electric carmakers urgently need to conquer."

The Lightning goes from emitting significant greenhouse gases from the tailpipe to zero direct emissions. There are secondary emissions in the fuel cycle from the generation of the electricity that charges it. But no matter where you are in North America, they are far lower than the emissions from the Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) versions. And the grid is getting cleaner every year so it will just keep getting better.

Ford F-150 Lightning

Ford

We don't have a lot of detailed specifications about the F-150 lightning yet, and no LCA, but we do for other cars that we might be able to compare it to.

Lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions for conventional and electric vehicles (by country) in grammes CO2-equivalent per kilometre,
Lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions for conventional and electric vehicles in grammes CO2-equivalent per kilometre,.

Carbon Brief

Zeke Hausfather of Carbon Brief compared a Tesla Model 3 with batteries made in the Nevada Gigafactory, which has a very low carbon footprint per kilowatt-hour, to an average European car. On his website the graph is interactive so one can see the value in each block.

The graph shows the greenhouse gas emissions in grams per kilometer driven, assuming lifetime driving of 150,000 kilometers. The average Euro car totals 258 grams per kilometer; the Tesla Model 3 totals 147 grams per kilometer, or 56%. That is obviously significantly better, a huge improvement, but it is nowhere close to zero emissions.

Table comparing cars
Table comparing Ford to Tesla.

Lloyd Alter

While we do not have all the data on the Ford, we do have the weights. I believe we can assume that the emissions will increase in proportion with the weight, with the Ford F-150 Lightning being 183% the weight of the Tesla Model 3. Munch all of the numbers, and the F-150 actually has a higher carbon footprint in grams per kilometer than the standard Euro car. So instead of promoting and encouraging the sale of giant electric pickups and giving rebates to people who buy them, we would probably be better off giving rebates on Honda Civics. And don't even think about what happens with a 9,000 pound Hummer EV.

Now, this doesn't take into account the grid is getting cleaner or that there are regional disparities; driving the Ford in Washington State or Quebec with their clean electricity will look a lot better. It probably underestimates the life of an electric vehicle: 150,000 kilometers is only 93,200 miles and the average American car is driven further than that, driving the lifecycle emissions from the gas-powered car higher and the LCA of the electric vehicle lower. But the basic principle holds—electric pickup trucks won't save us, there is too much upfront carbon involved in making them.

Rob Cotter, who designed a very light electric vehicle, gets this, noting that "weight is the key to radical efficiency especially when it comes to CO2 mitigation." Of course, he is right; my e-bike comes in at 17 grams per kilometer.

The F-150 Lightning is going to be hugely popular. But it is too big, it is too heavy, and it does nothing to solve our climate problem—every one of them is a 40-ton burp of upfront carbon. We can't ignore that any longer.