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A Dose of Reality Over “Zero-Emissions” Electric Vehicles


By Ben Lieberman, Competitive Enterprise Institute 

Far too many journalists sound like cheerleaders when the topic is electric vehicles (EVs). That’s why RealClear Investigations’ Zero Emissions From Electric Vehicles? Here’s Why That Claim Has Zero Basis by John Murawski is a must-read for anyone thinking about buying an EV for environmental reasons, as well as for policy makers who would benefit from a reality check on the merits of EV subsidies and mandates. The report takes on the “reassuringly simple yet overstated promise of electric vehicles.”

As CEI and others have noted, each EV battery requires a great deal of mined and processed minerals. Along with the direct environmental impacts of such activities, they are also energy-intensive. That is why the greenhouse gas emissions associated with making an EV are considerably greater than that for a comparable internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle.

In other words, supposedly carbon-friendly EVs start out environmentally worse than their conventional counterparts. That carbon deficit is reduced for every mile powered by electricity instead gasoline or diesel, particularly if one makes optimistic assumptions regarding how much of that electricity will be generated via low-emitting sources like wind and solar.

EV proponents downplay the fact that EVs start in the hole by claiming that they make up for it after around 20,000 miles—less than two years of average driving—and thereafter are relatively greenhouse-friendly. But Murawski’s report shows that the reality may not be so rosy.

For one thing, the evidence shows that EVs are not driven as many miles as gasoline-powered vehicles and thus take longer than two years to climb out of their carbon hole. That is not surprising given that 90 percent of EVs are the second, third, or even fourth vehicle in households that have them. Research also shows that the kind of people buying EVs are likely to otherwise be logging those miles in a vehicle considerably more fuel efficient than average and quite possibly a hybrid—and thus far less emitting than the average and for which an EV offers a slimmer emissions advantage. By one estimate, the use of an average rather than likely reference vehicle in most pro-EV studies overstates the emissions benefit by as much as 600 percent.

Taking all of this into account, the real break-even point for an EV may be well beyond two years for most drivers, which raises questions about whether the eventual greenhouse gas emissions reductions are worth the substantial cost, and in some cases whether there are reductions at all.

Murawski also brings up other often overlooked points, such as that an EV battery may not last as long as the rest of the car and may need to be replaced. Beyond being expensive, a replacement EV battery would all but demolish any chance of the vehicle being greenhouse-friendlier than a comparable ICE vehicle.

There are important lessons both for consumers and policy makers. Of course, those who want an EV and are willing to pay for one should be free to do so, but they should not fall for misleading environmental claims. More importantly, governments should not be justifying costly subsidies for EVs and regulatory restrictions on ICE vehicles based on projections of greenhouse gas emissions reductions that have little or no basis in reality.


Ben Lieberman is a senior fellow who specializes in environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.