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Electric Cars Are Not That Green after All

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Electric vehicles (or EVs) are probably not that environmentally friendly as we believe they are, but people should buy them anyway. This is the summary of discussions held in the Western media upon the publication of an article written by a German economics professor Hans-Werner Sinn. In his research, Professor Sinn claims that EV revolution is nothing but transferring carbon emissions “from the exhaust pipe to the power plant”, which means that switching from combustion engine vehicle to EV will not help preventing global warming.

The assumption is questionable and controversial by the EU standards. The obvious conclusion, however, is that electric car is rather a step back than forward. In the best case scenario, carbon emissions generated through manufacturing Li-Ion batteries and subsequent electricity usage for charging the cars are comparable with the ones produced by internal combustion engines. The real figure is even more astonishing - emissions of carbon dioxide generated by EVs over their lifetime are 28% higher compared to diesel-driven cars.

With much of the world’s electricity still produced from fossil fuels, the only difference is that harmful substances get released into the air at the factories that manufacture car batteries and at the fossil power plants that generate electricity required by electric vehicles. Taking into account that share of coal in the energy mix of the EU countries - Germany is one notable example - is still relatively high, eco-friendliness of EVs is a big exaggeration.

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Most of the foreign experts are doubting the conclusions of Prof. Sinn’s research, they say his work is not scientifically credible, his assumptions are wrong, and he did not give any consideration to a number of crucial issues. Those experts say a German professor took some numbers and facts out of the context to support his findings. Some analysts nonetheless agree with the professor and still they insist people should choose an electric vehicle and support the switch to a zero carbon society.

Ranald Boydell, Visiting Lecturer at Heriot-Watt University, believes the fast-paced and swift transition to a sustainable society is the right decision: ”As of now, 20% of global carbon emissions originate from the transport sector. The figure is even higher in the UK - 33%, and the country’s progress in reducing transport emissions is virtually non-existent. Moreover, transport-linked emissions are growing in many countries… Even if we accept that Prof. Sinn is right, he is missing out a key point. The car we decide to buy today is the choice that will inevitably influence the future of the whole energy system. Choosing a combustion-powered vehicle means supporting the further use of fossil fuels.”

Mr. Boydell admits that switching from fossil-fuel powered cars to electric vehicles will increase the pressure on the electricity sector. If the scale of transition does not slow down, electricity demand could double, and households would end up paying twice as much for energy. The solution he suggests is to charge vehicles in the nighttime when there is surplus capacity. It seems a reasonable way out for consumers as night energy tariffs are usually a lot cheaper than day tariffs.

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”It should be mentioned that negative environmental impacts always occur when manufacturing large industrial products. Lithium is an essential part of EV batteries, but its mining results in pollution and depletion of water resources, thus causing harm to wildlife. In the end, the best way to reduce the environmental burden is to make less cars and use less cars. To make it happen, promoting car sharing and facilitating public transport improvement are essential.”

The final conclusion made by Ranald Boydell in his article is that electric cars are still the least bad option. He believes the society should take the required actions in order to fight the climate crisis, which includes among others the switch to EVs. By making that change, global consumers alongside the industries and local governments will make their contribution in favour of a carbon-free future.

Vladimir Litvinenko, Rector of Saint-Petersburg Mining University: ”Some countries want to intensify the EV revolution, but do they know where from an electricity surplus can be ensured? Charging electric cars would require an extra amount of energy. Wind generators and solar panels are not enough to provide it, as they cannot sustain peak loads, neither technologies required to store solar or wind energy - at least on the required scale - are cheap enough. Therefore, the only possibility to cover increasing energy demand is to burn more fossil fuels, coal included."

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Prof. Litvinenko does not undermine a globally supported idea of reducing carbon dioxide emissions, but he insists that the matter should be considered in its full complexity. If an energy transition is not thought over carefully, it may result in lower concentration of atmospheric contaminants in developed countries but, at the same time, in higher concentration of pollutants in the neighbouring regions of less developed states.

"Reduction of CO2 emissions is important not only due to environmental needs but also to make sure that we - people - live in the more comfortable ecosystem, that we breathe clean air, not the car exhausts. By prohibiting combustion engines we do not solve the problem though. There are lots of other, hardly less important issues, which if addressed will allow us reduce the technogenic impact on the environment. For instance, when designing new buildings, engineers should take into consideration the ratio between the number of residents and green spaces they plan to plant. We need skyscrapers, but we also need parks.”