Zero Emission vs Zero Impact

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Peter-James Gregory. Photo Peter-James Gregory

An EV, specifically a Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV), not a hybrid, has no exhaust. A 100% electric powerplant produces no emissions. Voila, a zero emission vehicle, but not a vehicle with zero impact on the environment.

Volvo Cars, planning to be fully electric by 2030, produces both ICE and BEV versions of the same model, the XC40 SUV. Volvo Cars released a detailed report comparing the carbon footprint of both versions. The carbon footprint parameters include all emissions related to the manufacture and operation of the vehicle through to 200,000 km. 

Manufacturing an EV requires almost six times the amount of minerals used in the manufacture of an ICE vehicle. Mining, refining, and processing these minerals, plus manufacturing the batteries, generate a huge carbon footprint. Producing an EV is a dirty process, far dirtier than producing an ICE vehicle. An EV starts its operating life with a far larger carbon footprint than an ICE vehicle.

Three standards

Once in operation, an EV requires electricity to recharge its batteries. As electricity is produced by various methods, the report used three standards to account for different sources. Some sources are fueled by oil, gas or coal, and will be for many years to come. India and China are heavily reliant on coal to fuel their power stations and are building more coal-fired power stations as I write this article.

Here, I will use the EU28 standard, based on the cleaner energy mix in the European Union. This is closer to the Canadian standard. 

As an EV starts operational life with a larger carbon footprint than an ICE vehicle, and the electricity required to operate an EV also generates a carbon footprint, Volvo Cars identified the break even point where the EV’s carbon footprint matches that of an ICE vehicle. This break even point for the XC40, using the EU28 standard, occurred at 84,000 km. Up to 84,000 km the EV version had a higher carbon footprint than the ICE version.

Insurance industry and government data shows the average Canadian drives less than 20,000 km per year. Thus, in Canada, it will take over four years for the carbon footprint of an EV to break even with a similar ICE vehicle.

It is important to note, using the Global standard applicable to India, China and many other nations, the break-even point is pushed out to 146,000 km. 

Despite illuminating negatives, Volvo Cars is not stepping back from its EV plan. However, new innovations and new discoveries are required to bring Zero Emissions closer to Zero Impact. Unfortunately, many of these will not materialize and/or become viable by 2030. Perversely, as EV sales grow, it will become harder to reduce the gap between Zero Emissions and Zero Impact.

Increasing mineral supply

As EV battery demand grows, there is an urgency to rapidly increase the supply of minerals. Mining these minerals is a dirty process with a huge carbon footprint that will grow exponentially.

China holds a dominant position in mining, refining, and processing many of the minerals required for EVs, plus a dominant position in manufacturing batteries for EVs. Manufacturing EV batteries requires high amounts of energy, and in 2021, coal accounted for 56% of China’s energy consumption.

Manufacturing EV batteries is an energy intensive process, offsetting many environmental benefits of “zero” emissions vehicles. Photo Shutterstock

After widespread power shortages last year, China increased its focus on energy security (sufficient and affordable, uninterrupted energy supplies). This has resulted in an intense push to increase the production and supply of coal, its main energy source. China is the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide (CO2) and this push to increase coal will ensure China emits even more CO2 in years to come.

Meanwhile, huge strides are still being made in the development of the ICE powerplant. One example is the new Toyota GR Corolla with a 1.6 litre turbocharged 3-cylinder ICE powerplant, producing 300 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque. Tiny high-output ICE powerplants like these, with reduced carbon footprints, are changing the equation and pushing back the carbon footprint break-even point for an EV.

I challenge you to ponder the inconvenient truth…

Peter-James Gregory is an entrepreneur, car guy and retired tire industry professional with a history of driving growth and creating value in the tire and automotive sectors. You can reach him at: [email protected].



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