WWF-Canada Blog:

Clearing the air on electric cars – a summary of recent research

This morning I woke up to yet another newspaper article that not only predicted the demise of the electric car but made some dismissive statements about the environmental benefits of EVs, their viability for everyday use, and the appropriateness of offering subsidies to consumers. To clear the air on electric cars, I felt the need to share some interesting and credible reports that point to a very different conclusion.

Autoshare EV

About the environmental potential of electric vehicles: just this week the US department of energy and others released a hefty (390+ pages) review of options to reduce fuel use and greenhouse gas reductions. Transitioning to Alternative Vehicles and Fuels identified that electric vehicles will play a significant role helping us reach the greenhouse gas emission reduction targets that are necessary to prevent crippling climate change.

Simply making vehicles more efficient, or transitioning to natural gas – while certainly the right thing to do – will not be enough if we seriously want to tackle climate change – we must move to new options like electric vehicles.

WWF-Canada has compared alternative fuels using Canadian lifecycle GHG emissions (meaning we counted emissions from electricity generation, manufacturing and vehicle use). The analysis showed that electric vehicles produce much less emissions than regular gas cars, and perform better than hybrids, diesel, and natural gas vehicles.

It also shows clearly that the extent of the environmental benefit of an electric car depends on the electricity source: an electric car in BC, which generates electricity mainly from hydropower, provides more environmental benefits than in Alberta, which generates electricity mainly from coal. Rather than an argument against EVs, this is a strong argument for increasing renewable energy and decreasing our reliance on coal – something we already know we need to do, for human health and better air quality, not just for climate change.

About the viability of electric vehicles: there are many Canadians that are currently living with, and loving their electric car. Don’t take our word for it; check out our series Life with my EV that features EV owners and drivers and talks about their experiences.

Finally, about the concern that electric vehicle subsidies in BC, ON and QC are going to benefit affluent owners who don’t need them: the International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently reported that global subsidies for energy – mainly oil, coal, and natural gas – amounted to at least $480 billion in 2011 alone. These subsidies encourage excessive energy consumption and end up mostly benefitting “higher-income households, reinforcing inequality”. Furthermore, cutting out fossil fuel subsidies, “could lead to a 13 percent decline in CO2 emissions”.

What is a better investment – minor subsidies for emerging clean technology that push us toward the world we know we need or major subsidies for mature, highly profitable industries that move us further toward a future we know the planet can’t handle?

Count me in for EVs.

  • Hi Donald, Thanks for the questions! please let me know if you have any others after looking through the information below.

    1. Personal light vehicles produce 62% of our total road transportation emissions:
    Road transportation can be broken into two categories: personal road transportation and freight road transportation. Personal road transportation (personal vehicles) makes up 12% of total emissions in canada and freight (trucking) makes up 7%. So light vehicles do play a significant role in Canada’s total emissions. (see here for a nice graphic that shows the breakdown: http://www.wwf.ca/conservation/global_warming/transportation/).

    2. EVs are a necessary part of the transportation solution to reach emission targets.
    It’s true – due to fuel efficiency standards in the US & Canada, new vehicles are producing less emissions each year. However, simply increasing efficiency will not be enough to reach long term emission reduction targets (80% reduction by 2050). The report I referenced above is really long, but I recommend looking at this great summary: http://www.greencarcongress.com/2013/03/nrc-20130318.html that shows the findings that EVs, Hydrogen vehicles and some biofuels will be needed to hit that long-term emission reduction.

    In terms of how much reduction we would see if EVs started significantly replacing gas-powered cars: The emission reduction potential of an EV depends on the source of electricity, so it would depend on where EVs are being deployed. If these vehicles were being deployed across Canada at an even disbursement, we would see an average 60% reduction in GHG emissions from each vehicle replaced. If the vehicles were either constrained to regions that had more renewable energy generation (like BC or QC), or if we passed policies to ensure that the emissions in coal-powered electricity regions were offset, we would see an 80% reduction in GHG emissions from each vehicle replaced – so quite significant!

  • Donad Callahan

    I read your report on EVs and found it a little confusing. You talk about road transportation being 19% of GHG emmissions. But isn’t most of that related to Trucking? My sense of things is that light vehichles (cars) produce much less than half of our road transportation GHG. And a lot of those cars are older models that will be replaced by newer, more efficient vehicles (EV or otherwise). Can you give me some sort of a realistic number as to how much (%) reduction we would see if half the new cars purchased were EVs? Is it really significant? I need to be convinced. With thanks, Don