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Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Gas Cars’ Supply Chain Causes Far More Damage Than EVs – Yale University Study

Gas cars produce more supply chain emissions than EVs. (Photo: emobilitysimplified.com)

Barbara Whitchurch

My favorite food, guacamole, has a built-in supply-chain environmental impact. Made from avocados, which are certainly not grown in Vermont, it requires farming, tending, harvesting, packaging, and lots of shipping. And if I want my guacamole pre-smushed and packaged in plastic, that just makes it all worse.

Likewise, a study by the Yale School of Environment (YSE), published in Nature (bit.ly/yale-ice-supply), used lifecycle assessment and energy modeling tools to analyze data about indirect emissions from internal combustion engines (ICE) vehicles compared to electric vehicles (EVs). Researchers calculated what a carbon price on those figures would cost and what effect it could have on the auto market (bit.ly/yale-ice-supply-ct).

They found that the total indirect emissions from EVs are trivial in comparison to the indirect emissions from fossil fuel-powered vehicles. This is in addition to the direct emissions from burning fossil fuels — either at the tailpipe for ICE vehicles or at the power plant smokestack for electricity generation — showing that EVs have a clear advantage in emissions, over ICE vehicles.

“The surprising element was how much lower the emissions of electric vehicles were,” said postdoctoral associate Stephanie Weber. “The supply chain for combustion vehicles is just so dirty that electric vehicles can’t surpass them, even when you factor in indirect emissions.”

EVs offer a cleaner, lower-emission experience for consumers, but some skeptics still criticize the mining, manufacturing and charging practices necessary for their batteries as too dirty. But, compared to what? Do they propose an available alternative? When compared to ICE vehicles, this study shows how minuscule the cradle-to-grave emissions of EVs are.

(Keep in mind that the supply chain for gasoline itself – oil discovery, pumping, transporting, refining, transporting to a station near you – means that, just as with my guacamole, regardless of what you end up doing with that gallon of gas you bought, it has already caused considerable damage.)

According to lead researcher Paul Wolfram, the study shows that “the elephant in the room is the supply chain of fossil fuel-powered vehicles, not that of electric vehicles.” He noted that the faster we switch to EVs, the better — at least in countries with a sufficiently decarbonized electricity supply, like the U.S.

“A major concern about electric vehicles is that the supply chain, including the mining and processing of raw materials and the manufacturing of batteries, is far from clean,” said Yale Economics professor Ken Gillingham. “So, if we priced the carbon embodied in these processes, the expectation is electric vehicles would be exorbitantly expensive. It turns out that’s not the case; if you level the playing field by also pricing the carbon in the fossil fuel vehicle supply chain, electric vehicle sales would actually increase.”

Electric cars have emissions advantages across the entire supply chain, and they’re only going to get cleaner. Keep in mind that buying a hybrid simply combines the worst of both worlds, while keeping you stuck with ICE maintenance, repair and replacement costs. (bit.ly/ev-snark).

Barbara and her husband are owners of LEAF and Niro EVs and are board members of VT Passive House (bit.do/mdx-mec-bldg, bit.do/gkw-li).

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