A recent study from Imperial College London, in partnership with UK energy company Drax Group, investigated the green credentials of different types of vehicles, to put to bed the question “are EVs genuinely better for the environment?”
It concluded that, yes, going electric is definitely a win for reducing emissions. However, the premium electric models coming to market today have a considerably greater carbon footprint than the electric models of the past. I want to explore this market development further; could it be that customer desire for range will actually drive up carbon emissions?
More than just the exhaust pipe: the rising importance of Life Cycle Analysis
Transport’s electric transition has been propelled forward to combat the twin environmental threats of climate change and air pollution. As with any “green solution”, it is right to query its environmental credibility to ensure we invest in the right action.
The key difference between climate change and air pollution is the type of emissions being released to the environment and the scale of their impact. Air pollution, predominantly caused by nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter (PM10, PM2.5), is a local concern, of the air around us that we breathe. Climate change, however, is focused on greenhouse gases, most notably carbon dioxide (CO2). These represent a long-term and global impact that ignores distances between where the emission occurs and the humans it effects.
When we account for transport’s climate change impact, it is simply not enough to just count the emissions coming out of the exhaust pipe. Instead, we need to consider anything that has been emitted as a direct result of that vehicle’s existence and use. The best way to do this involves conducting a Life Cycle Analysis (or LCA). An LCA takes in the impacts of all four stages of that vehicle’s life:
From burning fuel to building batteries
Imperial’s study used LCA to compare CO2 emissions of EVs with petrol and diesel equivalent vehicles. It offered some interesting conclusions:
- On average, EVs emit 25% of the carbon emissions of a petrol or diesel equivalent over the lifetime of the vehicle.As EVs emit more in manufacturing, they have an operational payback period to become more environmentally friendly than the petrol or diesel equivalent. The payback period typically is 5-7 years for a premium model and 2-4 years for a hatchback model.
Much of this is confirmatory of existing knowledge, but this study does shed greater light on the operational payback period. The biggest factor affecting the green credentials of the EV is its battery. As the study states, it could take three times longer to payback the emissions if you go for the luxury, bigger EV. To picture this, consider the following graph:
Range anxiety drives the demand for bigger batteries
These findings become particularly interesting when linked to customer behaviour around EV adoption.
One of the great barriers to EV uptake is range anxiety; the nervousness that car batteries will run flat before completing their journey or reaching the next chargepoint.
Evidence shows most car journeys are less than 25 kilometres, so no need to worry, right? Well, the majority does not equal all and if you are spending so much money on a car, you want it to meet all your needs. The potential for complication, delay and stress from conducting that infrequent long-distance journey is enough to put people off making the transition to electric.
To overcome this barrier, there are three prevailing approaches:
- Change people’s minds. Education to inform people that they do not need the extra range.
- More chargepoints. Investment in an accessible network within range.
- Change the technology. Bigger batteries to get closer to the range that they currently enjoy.
While all approaches are very welcome, arguably, the most appealing to the EV customer is approach number 3. New models boast battery capacities offering from 350 to 600 km range (a top spec Tesla Model S should theoretically be able to drive between Delta-EE’s offices in Cambridge and Edinburgh on a single charge).
I am as guilty as the next eMobility analyst to be excited by just how many extra kWh the next model boasts because I know this really helps solve range anxiety and win over hearts and minds. But, as we can see, this is not without its impacts.
The “carbon cost of convenience” and its implications
If the demand for larger battery vehicles stems from range anxiety and these larger batteries are creating prolonged payback periods, we can conclude that customer concerns and demands are driving a much greater carbon emission debt than may be necessary. This effect I call the “carbon cost of convenience”.
And, to reiterate, this is linked primarily to climate change not air quality agendas. Any policy drive to go electric for air quality reasons is not going to be concerned by this.
Critically, this carbon cost is unlikely to be linked to the end consumer of the EV. Industrial production emissions will be accounted for very differently to the emissions that come from an exhaust pipe. They will be attributed to different companies in different countries with differing approaches and responsibilities towards decarbonisation - much like the rest of industrial emissions accounting as it is today.
What should we take from this?
In answer to the headline: no, range anxiety does not increase carbon emissions, assuming the alternative is continuing to drive petrol or diesel. But, your choice of electric does. I believe there are three key ways we should apply this knowledge going forward.
Firstly, education. Present LCA for all types of vehicle to all types of stakeholder. Clear labelling helps drives home the message that electric is better than petrol or diesel. Equally, that there are many shades of green that air quality agendas are colour-blind to. Green consumers may choose to downsize if they became aware of the enhanced climate benefit of doing so.
Secondly, reassurance. Don’t let the embedded battery emissions factor be a reason for not going electric at all. Even if you plan to own your larger EV for less than the emissions payback period, it is still far better to choose the electric than a petrol or diesel equivalent, the EV will likely stay around for 15-20 years. The rationale that “smaller equals better” is no different with electric to any other type of vehicle.
Finally, businesses and policymakers should consider the opportunities of this within the long-term context of shifting mobility and energy patterns. The age of private car ownership is starting to decline. New subscription and shared mobility models may see a more efficient allocation of vehicles to journey requirements.
At the same time, the flexibility and microgrid agendas will flourish in our energy systems. If larger battery capacities are inevitable, make sure we effectively harness the opportunity to use them to service the electricity grid. Doing so could be a win-win for decarbonising transport and energy simultaneously.
For further information on our electric vehicles, visit www.delta-ee.com/EVs or get in touch with me directly.