NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Green Cars: Not So Clean After All

March 13, 2013

Electric and hybrid cars were lauded as a cure for climate change and carbon emissions. Though electric vehicles are zero emissions, only 50,000 were sold in 2012 -- well short of the number needed to achieve President Obama's goal of 1 million green cars on the road by 2015. While consumers are wary about the technology, logistics and price of green cars, their environmental benefit is less than commonly understood, says Bjorn Lomborg, director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center in Washington, D.C.

  • Proponents claim that electric cars do not contribute to global warming.
  • They are correct only in that their cars do not emit carbon dioxide.
  • But the manufacturing process for green cars requires significant energy and creates substantial carbon waste.

A comprehensive lifecycle analysis reveals that almost 50 percent of the lifetime carbon-dioxide emissions from an electric car come from the energy used to produce the car, particularly the lithium batteries. An internal combustion vehicle creates only 17 percent of its lifetime carbon dioxide when manufactured.

  • It costs 30,000 pounds of carbon-dioxide emission to produce an electric car, equal to about 80,000 miles of travel, yet it's only 14,000 pounds to build a conventional car.
  • Because electric vehicles rely on electricity that is typically produced with fossil fuels, it indirectly emits about six ounces of carbon dioxide per mile compared with about 12 ounces for a conventional car.
  • Due to the large emissions output during manufacturing, an electric car that is driven 50,000 miles over its lifetime and powered by coal-fired power plants will actually emit 15 ounces of carbon dioxide per mile -- three ounces more than a conventional car.
  • If an electric car is driven for 90,000 miles, it will cause just 24 percent less carbon-dioxide emission over its lifetime than a conventional car. Over its entire lifetime, the electric car will be responsible for 8.7 tons of carbon dioxide less than the average conventional car.

The 8.7 tons of carbon dioxide that would be saved is valued at about $44, yet the federal government continues to subsidize electric-car buyers with up to $7,500. More than $5 billion in federal grants go to battery and electric car manufacturers. What was once thought of as an environmentally-conscious endeavor is turning out to produce more pollution and waste government money.

Source: Bjorn Lomborg, "Bjorn Lomborg: Green Cars Have a Dirty Little Secret," Wall Street Journal, March 11, 2013.


Browse more articles on Environment Issues