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Electric cars and the Zero emissions claim

A recent development in personal transportation, in particular in Norway, has been the (re-)introduction of electric vehicles. Where electric vehicles used to be either mobility scooters or big, ugly clunkers, they now come in many packages, from the small and nippy, such as Buddy, to the ones that look like, well, a car, such as Teslas offerings. The other day, I passed an electric car, on the side of which proudly proclaimed “Zero emission”. Depending on your perspective and where in the world you are located, the claim can be considered false, plausible or true. Let’s take a look:

From a lifecycle view, the claim is clearly and definitively false. Even with the best manufacturing techniques, it is unavoidable that there be some level of emissions, both when manufacturing the car as a whole, and most particularly when making the batteries. If you discount the manufacturing, you must still contend with shipping, which, unless done by electric trains (not diesel-electric, more on the sourcing of the electric power below) from manufacturing plant to the consumer, is also responsible for some level of emissions.

Now, once delivered to the customer, the car does not in and of itself make any emissions, which is the only reason the claim can reasonably (although with some level of intellectual dishonesty) be made. Although the car itself may not make any emissions, that does not necessarily mean that no emissions were made in order to make the car run. In Norway, where I live, the vast majority of electric power is sourced through renewable energy. Thus, the level of emissions associated with making an already existing car run, can reasonably be said to be zero.

In other countries, that is not so. We need look no further than Germany, to find that their electric power is significantly less clean, and the level of emissions associated with making an already existing car run, can not reasonably be said to be zero without setting more constraints. What constraints? The thing about the emissions made by traditionally powered cars, is that they are twofold; first during the extraction and processing of petroleum, and second during combustion. The latter is local.

Thus, even though the power running an electric car is unclean, the car may still be said to have zero local emissions (though only with significant intellectual dishonesty) if the power plant manufacturing the power is not located within the local zone.

To me, a more interesting question than whether or not the emission-level of the cars is zero (which, as I believe I have shown, they do not), but rather whether they are better than their traditionally powered counterparts. I don’t have the answer to that question, though I’d be interested to hear if anyone else does. I also suspect that not only are they better, but significantly so.

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