Proponents proudly proclaim that if an electric car is driven about 180,000 miles, it will have emitted less than half the CO2 of a gasoline-powered car. But its battery will likely need to be replaced long before it reaches this target, implying many more tons of CO2 emissions.
In fact, such distances seem implausible, given electric cars’ poor range: The Nissan Leaf, for example, can go only 73 miles on a charge. That is why most people buy an electric car as their second car, for short commutes. If the car is driven less than 32,000 miles on European electricity, it will have emitted more CO2 overall than a conventional car.
Even if driven much farther, 93,000 nukes, an electric car’s CO2 emissions will be only 28 percent less than those of a gasoline-powered car. During the car’s lifetime, this will prevent 11 tons of CO2 emissions, or about 44 euros of climate damage.
Given the size of the subsidies on offer, this is extremely poor value. Denmark’s subsidies, for example, pay almost 6,000 euros to avoid one ton of CO2 emissions. Purchasing a similar amount in the European Emissions Trading System would cost about 5 euros. For the same money, Denmark could have reduced CO2 emissions more than a thousand-fold.
Worse, electric cars bought in the European Union will actually increase global CO2 emissions. Because the EU has a fixed emission target for 2020, it will offset emissions elsewhere (perhaps with more wind power), regardless of the type of car purchased: 38.75 tons of CO2 from a gasoline car, and 16 tons from the electricity produced for an electric car. But, while EU emissions stay the same, most electric batteries come from Asia, so an extra 11.5 tons of emissions will not be offset.
The electric car’s environmental transgressions are even worse in China, where most electricity is produced with coal. An electric car powered with that electricity will emit 21 percent more CO2 than a gasoline-powered car. And, as a recent study shows, because China’s coal-fired power plants are so dirty, electric cars make the local air worse. In Shanghai, air pollution from an additional million gasoline-powered cars would kill an estimated nine people each year. But an additional million electric cars would kill 26 people annually, owing to the increase in coal pollution.
The electric-car mantra diverts attention from what really matters: a cost-effective transition from fossil fuels to cheaper green energy, which requires research and innovation. Electric cars might be a great advance for that purpose in a couple of decades. But lavish subsidies today simply enable an expensive, inconvenient, and often environmentally deficient technology.