What Do We Do About Cars, Climate and Coronavirus?

©. ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images

If we are going to keep to 1.5 degrees we have to decide: Cars to drive or a planet to live in?

All the Kotkins of the world are projecting that when this is over, it's back to Sprawlville. "Just as progressives and environmentalists hoped the era of automotive dominance and suburban sprawl was coming to end, a globalized world that spreads pandemics quickly will push workers back into their cars and out to the hinterlands."

Some think this won't be that much of a problem because hey, the cars will be electric. There may well be demand for this; a recent survey in the UK found that more people are considering buying electric cars on the other side of this pandemic because they are enjoying the cleaner air. Bradley Berman of Electrek writes that "the coronavirus is making consumers more aware of the environment — and therefore more inclined to buy an electric car." A fleet management company conducted the survey:

The firm found that 45% of respondents were considering buying an EV after seeing how clear the air can be. An additional 17% had already decided to buy an electric car and are even now more certain about their decision. That makes 62% of UK consumers in that UK survey ready to go electric.

The problem is that it takes a lot of energy and stuff to build any kind of car, a lot of carbon dioxide is emitted making that energy and stuff, what some call embodied energy or embodied carbon, and that I prefer to call upfront carbon emissions (UCE).

UCE matters if you accept that, to keep the planet's average temperature rise to less than 1.5°C, we have to limit the amount of carbon that we put into the atmosphere between now and 2030 to about 320 gigatonnes, and as far as the atmosphere is concerned, the upfront emissions are indistinguishable from the operating emissions. Divide that up and each of us has a carbon personal carbon budget of about 40 tonnes each. (This is why I have been trying to live a 1.5 degree lifestyle.)

Carbon Brief table

We have noted before that the lifetime carbon emissions of an electric car are far lower than those of a conventional car, pretty much anywhere in the world that you drive. The graph probably understates how much lower, because it is likely that electric cars will last much longer; they have far fewer moving parts. And while some studies have stated that the upfront carbon emissions are about 15 percent higher because of the batteries, a giant RAM pickup has a lot more metal and probably more UCE than a Tesla Model 3.

Writing in Brussels Blog, Geoff Beacon worries about all these cars, electric or internal combustion engine (ICE) powered, and tries to confirm a statement by the UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee. (We reported on this on TreeHugger here.)

In the long-term, widespread personal vehicle ownership does not appear to be compatible with significant decarbonisation.

He looks at our total carbon budget and has done a careful analysis of all the available data to try and figure out exactly what the embodied carbon or UCE of an electric car actually is. He finds, as I did, that the numbers are all over the map, particularly when it comes to batteries. However, it is likely that a small electric car like the Nissan Leaf has UCE of about 10 tonnes of CO2 and a Tesla Model 3 is about the same.

Emissions over lifetime of car

Transport and Environment/CC BY 2.0

Every realistic analysis shows that over the lifetime of that electric car, far less CO2 is emitted, even with the dirtiest power mixes in the grid. But it still has about ten tonnes of UCE, which is a quarter of our individual carbon budget for the decade. If you are trying to live a 1.5 degree lifestyle and keep under 2.5 tonnes of carbon per year as I am, that's four full years of my carbon allowance.

Carbon Brief graph of new car vs leaf

As this Carbon Brief graph also shows, the lifetime carbon emissions of the new Nissan Leaf are way lower than that of the conventional car. It pays off the extra carbon debt of the ICE powered car in less than two years.

Carbon Brief no car vs new Leaf

But if someone goes full Kotkin, moves out of the city, buys a new Leaf for the first time or replaces an existing gas-powered car, that's an immediate 10 tonne hit. If this actually happens (and a lot of smart people think that Kotkin is wrong), here's one more way that it will be a disaster for the climate.

As Geoff Beacon concludes on Brussels Blog,

In households with at least one car, the carbon footprints of members of the household are very likely to exceed the fair remaining personal carbon budget in a handful of years. This leads to the same conclusion as the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee: "In the long-term, widespread personal vehicle ownership does not appear to be compatible with significant decarbonisation." The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee was correct. We have this choice:
Cars to drive or a planet to live in?

Or as I concluded, reading that Committee report: Electric cars won't save us.