EVs may not slow climate change, ETA report says

  • 25-Nov-2009 05:21 EST
ETA 11-09 Honda Insight.jpg

Switching to electric cars could speed climate change unless it is carefully managed, believes the ETA, which cites the latest Honda Insight hybrid as the "greenest" car currently on sale in the U.K.

While momentum grows in the U.S., Europe, and parts of Asia toward the introduction of electric cars, the net environmental benefits of the technology remain in debate. In the U.K., the Environmental Transport Association (ETA) has issued a report stating that a major move to electric cars could speed, rather then slow, climate change.

The report, “How to avoid an electric shock: Electric cars from hype to reality,” may be read with a mixture of interest, concern, and skepticism by OEMs and Tier 1 suppliers, many of which now have extensive, and expensive, R&D programs in place for the production of pure-electric and/or diesel-hybrid vehicles. But the report carries particular weight because ETA is a notable “green” player that was formed 20 years ago as an ethical motoring organization and sustainable travel lobby group.

Said ETA Director Andrew Davis: “While the report is not intended to damp enthusiasm for electric vehicles, their introduction should not be viewed as a panacea; significant changes to the way we produce and tax power are needed before we will reap any benefits.”

In a statement, the ETA said the idea that a wholesale switch to electric cars would automatically reduce CO2 emissions and dependence on oil was one of “a number of myths” that were dispelled by its report. The study on which the report is based was conducted by the European lobby group Transport & Environment, which is co-founded and supported by the ETA.

Many of the technology and fiscal aspects addressed in the report are known and appreciated by global auto manufacturers, but coming from the “green” side of the debate they will be attention-getters. The report states that although there are significant potential environmental benefits to be gained from a switch to electric vehicles, these are wholly dependent on changes in the way electricity is generated, energy taxed, and CO2 emissions regulated.

It asserts that under the current European Union emissions-trading system, sales of pure-electric cars are likely to result in higher overall CO2 emissions and oil consumption. That is because, Davis explained, electric cars get a zero CO2 rating in the regulation, as only the tailpipe emissions are counted.

“A car maker that sells 1% electric cars in a given year can thus leave the rest of his fleet 1% less efficient and still comply," said David. "This is under the assumption that car makers will try to minimize compliance costs, which becomes more plausible as targets get tougher. Under the assumption that EVs have less range than conventional cars, and that power-sector emissions are not completely mitigated, the net result of more EV sales is higher oil use [to fuel power stations] and CO2 emissions.”

There are caveats to this. The report makes it clear that pure-electric cars powered via electricity derived from wind or solar sources are a superior solution, but that if the electricity comes from a coal-fired power station, plug-in hybrids perform better. That is because, according to Davis, the regulations offer so-called supercredits for cars with CO2 emissions below 50 g/km—applicable to pure-electric vehicles but not plug-in hybrids, allowing manufacturers to count the former 3.5 times for their overall car fleet in 2012 and 2013.

The supercredit is reduced to 1 (i.e., phased out) in 2016. If car manufacturers sell a high volume of electric cars, this provision would effectively reduce the level of the CO2/km target for the entire fleet of a manufacturer.

“For example," said Davis, "if under a supercredit regime of 3.5, 1% electric cars were sold, the remaining 99% would only have to meet an average emissions target of 134.6 g/km, instead of 130. Even assuming electric cars are indeed zero emission (also assuming the electricity comes from renewables), this would increase average emissions from new cars by 2.5%, to over 133 g/km instead of 130. The logical result of these loopholes is that a manufacturer that sells one electric car can sell up to 3.5 cars with 260 g/km of CO(i.e., gas-guzzling SUVs) and still hit a 130 g/km fleet average target.”

Even when the supercredits are phased out in 2016, manufacturers that sell one pure-electric vehicle can still sell one gas-guzzler with emissions at twice the target level, he added.

The conclusion from this assessment is that the current regulatory framework on cars and CO2 makes it quite likely that the more EVs are sold, the more oil will be used and the more CO2 emitted.

“This arguably runs counter to the two prime objectives of the law: reduce CO2 emissions and oil consumption,” Davis said.

There is potential for improvement in performance and reduction of costs in the medium term but not enough to suggest pure-electric cars could compete head-on with conventional vehicles within the next two decades, the report says. It notes that the EU emissions trading system implies that pure-electric cars would not increase CO2 emissions because the power sector is covered by the scheme, but it claims that if this trading scheme remains unchanged, sales of pure-electric cars are likely to result in higher overall CO2 emissions and oil consumption.

“We believe a carbon tax (actually charged for any significant climate change contributor) with new rates signaled five years in advance would square this circle very effectively and obviate the need for vehicle metering,” said Davis.

Because of the low running costs of pure-electric vehicles, there would be increased demand for car transport, which would make necessary the taxation of electricity; onboard metering of electricity use would be a key requirement.

But even if the national power grid had the capacity and basic infrastructure to meet the needs of pure-electric and plug-in hybrid cars, new demand patterns created might mean greater use of coal and nuclear power.

The report concludes it is unlikely that pure-electric vehicles would account for more than 25% of new sales in Europe by 2050.

Despite the warnings it carries, the report makes three salient recommendations to speed the uptake of the technology and manage the transition.

One is tightening car CO2 standards to 80 g/km by 2020 and 60 g/km by 2025, while at the same time increasing fuel taxes because lack of stringent CO2 standards removes the main incentive for the motor industry to invest in electrification. “Road tax exemption and grants for electric cars should be abolished; electric cars must be rewarded for their energy efficiency, not for moving emissions from exhaust pipes to power station chimneys,” the report says.

Second, the quantity and quality of electricity used in pure-electric cars must be measured. Onboard metering of the amount of electricity will be critical to managing and regulating demand for electric vehicles.

Third, existing loopholes in the EU’s emissions trading system need to be closed and the cap further tightened.

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