Don’t fall for the myth that internal combustion cars are greener than batteries throughout their life
A few weeks ago, I argued that battery electric vehicles are greener than fossil fuels or hydrogen when it comes to well-to-wheel emissions. But that’s only part of the story, and many argue that once you factor in battery output, BEVs don’t look so green. This is not true, however.
It’s a common trope in anti-EV arguments online and was particularly fueled last year in the UK by the infamous ‘Astongate’. This involved a report commissioned by Aston Martin, Bosch, Honda, McLaren and the Renewable Transport Fuel Association called Decarbonizing road transport: there is no miracle solution. The report claimed that a BEV would need to be driven at least 50,000 miles before it broke even fossil fuel vehicle CO2 emissions.
I debunked that report at the time here at Forbes, and it turns out the document was produced by a puppet PR company called Clarendon Communications owned by Aston’s Director of Government and Corporate Affairs Martin, James Michael Stephens, but registered in the name of his wife, nurse. Forensic work by Michael Liebreich, founder of BloombergNEV and Auke Hoekstra of the University of Eindhoven detailed the many flaws of this “report”. But the right-wing press in the UK had already fallen for it, and you still see many claiming that the BEVs are not as green as the ICE, as it confirms their bias against change.
Not surprisingly, there is a serious pushback from incumbents in the fossil fuel industry. In fact, a detailed report based on old documents showed that the oil industry has has known about the role of its products in climate change since at least 1959, but chose to hide it and spend money on denial. A report in 2019 from InfluenceMap argued that the five largest publicly traded oil and gas companies invested more than $1 billion between 2015 and 2018 alone in “misleading climate-related branding and lobbying.” It’s a situation very similar to how the tobacco industry hid their knowledge that smoking caused cancer.
There should be no illusions that the manufacture of batteries is insignificant. This causes BEVs to generate more emissions than fossil fuel cars during the production phase. The question is how much. This, in turn, varies widely depending on where the BEVs were made and where they get their electricity from. Australia’s grid, for example, is almost three times dirtier than the UK’s average electricity emissions, and China pollutes in the same way as Australia.
However, extensively researched by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) showed that no matter where in the world a BEV is manufactured and charged, it is always far less polluting over its lifetime than internal combustion. The average in Europe is about three times less CO2 over the lifetime of the BEV, and in the US the figure is still less than half, despite the dirtier US grid. In China, the BEV rather produces 60% internal combustion. But it still represents a considerable saving in emissions.
With BEVs, as grids get cleaner – which they will – even existing vehicles will see their emissions from power generation go down, and so will the emissions from producing batteries for new BEVs. By contrast, emissions from internal combustion cars will not decline as much over the next decade. If you dig deeper into the ICCT report, you’ll see that hydrogen fuel cell cars, which are currently mostly powered by hydrogen generated by steam methane reforming, are dirtier than a plug-in hybrid, although both FCEVs and BEVs will benefit from more renewable energy. the energy sources come online and the production of hydrogen switches to electrolysis. Assuming that never happens. Hydrogen tanks also generate about as much CO2 during production as batteries.
Questionable labor practices around cobalt mining in the Congo are another criticism leveled at BEVs, but cobalt is also used in oil desulphurization, so the oil industry is not innocent in that either. -this. You also rarely see those making this argument making the same against the batteries in their phones or laptops. Once again, this is clearly an opinion maintained by the oil industry to cast doubt on a competitor. Organizations like the Fair Cobalt Alliance are trying to tackle the real problem – the exploitation of workers, not the mineral cobalt itself.
Most BEV manufacturers are already investigating or testing battery recycling. Volkswagen opened its first battery recycling plant in early 2021, and it’s no surprise the company did. It’s not just about pointing out the green virtue. The minerals in batteries are valuable, so recycling them has a much higher potential return than recycling cardboard, and a research project has even shown that the results can be better than batteries made from new materials.
This focus on lifetime product emissions may have been weaponized against BEVs, but now the truth is starting to come out, this focus can only be good for the environment. It’s great to see that manufacturers are now looking at emissions at every step of their supply chain. For example, BMW i Vision Flyer showcases the company’s use of recycled materials and points to the possibility that much of it can be reused once again at the end of the vehicles life. Volvo has a similar plan with its Concept Recharge.
Rather than looking bad for BEVs, the focus on lifetime emissions shows how green they are and how green they still will be in the future. So the next time someone spouts the myth that internal combustion is greener than battery-powered electricity because batteries are so dirty to make, tell them the truth. They are completely wrong.