Electric cars : the broader story

Researchers and other involved parties are regularly at odds with each other: does buying an electric car compared with a fuel driven car reduce CO2 emissions or not. A few weeks ago, another such investigation was in the news. [1] Yes, indeed, was the conclusion. I have no doubts whatsoever about the calculations in this study. However, in response to some questions, I have put some things in perspective. Because, that car and its CO2 emissions, are only part of the story of course.

1 First, the comparison between a new fuel car or a new e-car assumes that we should all have the right to buy a new car from time to time. However, the correct comparison should be: do we all drive our current car for another 10 or 20 years or buy new electric cars. Which already changes the perspective significantly. Of course we will eventually have to get rid of that fossil fuel during in that same period, but then the obvious option is to convert our existing cars. Why would you want a brand new car, while the old one can last another 40 years? After all, since around 20 years old cars no longer rust, and the rest is maintenance. Which even is drastically reduced after conversion. Fortunately, the first companies have been spotted to tackle this systematically. See also 4

2 Second, the equation is about the car itself and the fuel supply for it. But how that it is delivered is not included, such as the enormous expansion of the required infrastructure. For example, Amsterdam alone will need 50,000 charging points, which will of course be replaced every five years because the newer read ‘smarter’ type is on the market. Plus all the cabling for that and the software and data management, which is also a huge energy guzzler. Its production is also CO2 emissions. Worldwide that adds up to half a billion charging points plus infrastructure. (because everyone is entitled to a nearby charging point of course). See also: http://www.ronaldrovers.com/transition-charging-points-madness/

3 In addition, this only concerns CO2, which is only 1 effect, and also an end of pipe effect. This also results in material exhaustion itself, plus all the side effects of metal extraction in particular. This depletion of materials is not compensated , and are generally presented as so-called ‘non-renewable’ materials. Of course they can be renewed, just not automatically, but we do not renew them, do not invest energy in replenishing stocks. (which we do for “renewable materials”, via land and solar energy). The pollution from extraction is also neglected and passed on to society, more specific to countries that are still in development, and as a result face a lot of contamination and even a lot of health issues. The entire material chain needs to be evaluated: there is no energy without material and vv. Only a CO2 focus is a very limited focus, displacing the problem.

4 And finally, it makes no sense to evaluate 1 product. Even if that is a few percent better. Global CO2 emissions have been maximized as a absolute total, in order to still have a chance of staying below 1.5 or 2 degrees *.

The fair share in the Netherlands of the maximum CO2 to be emitted is 0.75 Gt (1.5 degrees) or 2.5 Gt (2 degrees), and as it is developing now, we will run out in 2024 resp. 2034 . So we have to calculate with totals: how much CO2 does it cost to replace all cars with electric ones, including the infrastructure, and check whether the total of this still fits within that emission budget (the part of it for transport). I did not calculate that for cars, but I made an approximation for retrofitting homes.**

It turns out that what may seem interesting for 1 home: a total make-over to energy-neutral, isn’t for the total stock: the sum for all homes far exceeds the budget under a 1.5 degree scenario. And if we take into account the slowness of implementation, the time it takes for all homes to be energy neutral, that the two-degree budget is also exceeded by far. (because of the stock that has not yet been renovated in periods before) The same scenario applies to the electrification of cars. These kinds of calculations only work for the entire stock and system , not for 1 item.

In short, nice and informative, such a 1 on 1 comparison, based on the question: “what shall I buy …?” But that is a very limited approach to our problems, mainly aimed at fulfilling individual short-term wishes with additional climate indulgences. It doesn’t tell us anything about the problem we want to solve and for which the introduction of the new product was meant to contribute.

The real solutions must come from system analysis, at the stock level of the delivery of a particular service, within a society as a whole, and over time. A one-by-one approach, focusing exclusively on CO2 or even only on any reduction thereof per product, is doomed to fail and does not help prevent the climate disaster.

After all, we have no energy problem at all, there is plenty of energy. It is the materials that are critical. There is no energy without immense material input. And regarding materials, nothing more is added on earth, only depleted and diluted.



* 1055GT globally (for 2 degree scenario), see ticker here: https://www.mcc-berlin.net/en/research/co2-budget.html , click the 2 degree button)

** for buildings its described in the Book: People vs Resources, and in the video’s of book chapters: episode 12 and 13: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCjzp39zM3xh-SEjH4jtLGBw

[1] https://www.oliver-krischer.eu/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/English_Studie.pdf

Author: ronald rovers