Why Electric Cars Won't Save Us: It Takes Years to Pay Off the Upfront Carbon Emissions


Volkswagen Group

This is not an attack on electric cars; it's a rage against all cars.

UPDATE 2 There is further evidence that Volkswagen has overestimated the carbon footprint of making batteries and grossly underestimated the true carbon footprint of their diesel. I am leaving the post up because even the expert who debunks VW comes to the same conclusion that I do:

Original Post:

I have often written that electric cars won't save us, mostly because of the massive upfront carbon emissions (UCE) required to make them. Now that the car makers are coming out with big electric pickup trucks and even Hummers, the issue becomes even more important. My issue has never been the question of the increase in upfront carbon emissions from making the batteries; as readers keep telling me, being electric compensates for that really quickly.

Battery percentage
Volkswagen Group 

However, a new lifecycle analysis released by Volkswagen demonstrates that it is not as quick as we thought. It shows the batteries being the true hot spot of production, accounting for 43.25 percent of the car's upfront carbon emissions.

Time to pay out carbon debt
 Volkswagen Group 

They then show how long it takes for the car to actually pay off that upfront carbon debt. Marko Gernuks, Head of Life Cycle Optimization notes: “You quickly realize that compared to a Golf diesel, the e-Golf has a greater carbon footprint in terms of production, but wait: After 125,000 kilometers [77,600 miles] on the road, it surpasses its brother and has a lower carbon footprint.”

According to United States Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration, Americans now drive an average of 13,476 miles per year, so it takes 5.75 years to pay off the additional carbon debt.

Yes, but look at all the benefits!

Recycling will reduce the footprint
 Volkswagen Group 

Yes, the air will be cleaner and the car will last longer and we will be burning far less fossil fuel in the meantime. Electric cars are wonderful. And VW is going to try to reduce the upfront carbon of making batteries the way Tesla has been dealing with this; they found that "green power for producing batteries significantly reduces the environmental impact." They are also going to plan for recycling the batteries. Gernuks notes: “The goal is to optimize the process and to use salvaged raw materials to further reduce the carbon footprint connected with manufacturing of batteries.” It will only get better.

This is not an attack on electric cars

Now, once again, I reiterate, this is NOT meant to be an attack on electric cars; making any vehicle generates upfront carbon emissions. Most other estimates I have seen show them to be only about 15 percent higher, and as VW notes, it can still be reduced.

This is an attack on BIG electric pickups and SUVs that have twice the UCE of a Tesla Model 3 or a Nissan Leaf. It's an attack on ALL cars, which should be replaced wherever possible with lightweight alternatives, transit, walking, bikes, e-bikes. We should not be looking at electric cars as a solution to the problem; we have to look at getting rid of cars if we want to have a hope of holding to 1.5 degrees of global warming. There's just not enough room left in the carbon budget to build them all.

UPDATE: A number of people have issues with the VW calculations, suggesting that it should be less than 25,000 km (15,534 miles) before the e-Golf overtakes the diesel Golf. Follow this thread on Twitter: