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The idea that vehicles powered by fossil fuels cause climate change and need to be replaced by electric vehicles (EVs) is no longer disputed. Even though an EV emits a considerable amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) during manufacturing, a conventional internal combustion engine produces around three times more CO2 in its lifetime.
The need to introduce alternatives such as EVs becomes even more pressing when you consider that road transportation is responsible for one-fifth of all global greenhouse gas emissions. The European Environment Agency describes EVs as “a smart choice for the environment.”
To get public and private entities to take action, everybody must understand the role of cars in driving climate change. So, in this article, we use statistics to tell the story of cars and climate change.
We also attempt to determine why many car buyers are choosing EVs. The article looks at the statistics on how EVs differ from cars with internal combustion engines (ICEs) regarding aspects such as the amount of copper cabling and wire harnesses tape machine used.
Before we dive into what the numbers say about cars and climate change, let’s give you a bird’s eye view of the situation through some quick statistics:
Before we look at the effect of cars on climate change, it’s important to start by getting an idea of what we mean by climate change and how it is measured.
The United Nations defines climate change as the “long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns.” The same organization adds, “These shifts may be natural, such as through variations in the solar cycle. But since the 1800s, human activities have been the main driver of climate change, primarily due to burning fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas.”
So, how do we measure climate change to prove it is happening?
The Climate Change Committee (CCC) is an independent agency with the mandate of advising UK policymakers on emission targets. The committee says, “Climate change is most commonly measured using the average surface temperature of the planet.”
The CCC adds, “Measurements of near-surface air temperature from weather stations can be combined with measurements of ocean surface temperature from ships and buoys to create a record of the planet’s surface temperature going back to the mid-19th century.”
Generally, we can say climate change is measured by taking weather metrics like minimum and maximum temperatures, wind speed, humidity, and precipitation today and comparing them to a specific time in the past. This can show the direction in which the climate of a specific place is changing.
The idea that the greenhouse gases – mainly carbon dioxide discharged by moving vehicles – are a massive contributor to climate change is no longer disputed. But what proportion of climate change can be attributed to motor vehicles?
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from transportation account for about 27 percent of total US greenhouse gas emissions, making it the largest contributor of US GHG emissions.”
When we look at the 27% mentioned by EPA above, it’s vital to realize that the statistic refers to emissions from transportation. This means that these emissions are from trains, airplanes, motor vehicles and cycles, and ships combined.
This is an important observation because there are many instances when this statistic is misunderstood to mean that on their own, passenger cars in the US are responsible for 27% of CHG emissions.
Alan Reynolds writes for the Cato Institute, the American think tank. In his article entitled “Blaming US Passenger Vehicles for Climate Change Is Ignorant but Lucrative,” he introduces some controversy into the issue of cars and climate change.
Reynolds refers to a CNN article that reported, “Making American cars greener is a key component of Biden’s economic and climate agendas… But the transition will be difficult; passenger vehicles contribute 29% of total US greenhouse gas emissions.”
Reynolds uses the CNN claim as an example of deliberately misleading information peddled even by credible publications. But why would these publications want to mislead the public?
“Confusing transportation with passenger cars is a familiar bait and switch trick long used to promote taxpayer subsidies for alternative fuels and vehicles,” Reynolds argues.
If the percentages in the upper 20s cited by several sources as the proportion of greenhouse gas emissions from passenger vehicles are misleading, what is the accurate figure? According to Reynolds, the accurate figure is around 16.4%.
He gets this number from the reasoning that passenger cars and trucks account for 50% to 60% of the energy used in transportation. Therefore, he proposes, “Since transportation-related greenhouse gases are almost entirely from energy use, and transportation contributes 29% of total US greenhouse gas emissions, that means passenger vehicles account for roughly 16.4% of US greenhouse gas emissions.”
The idea that passenger vehicles on their own are not responsible for 29% of total CGH emissions is supported by OurWorldInData.org. The organization puts the emissions from passenger vehicles at around 15% of total emissions.
According to the World Population Review, CO2 emissions are higher in developed countries such as the US. The same organization notes that climate change is becoming a vicious cycle as more energy is needed to deal with the effects of climate change. For example, as the temperature rises, more energy is required for air conditioning.
The World Population review lists countries according to the amount of CO2 they produce. China sits at the top with 11.535 gigatons of CO2 emissions in 2019. There are no prizes for guessing that the US is in the number 2 position with 5.243 gigatons.
However, the numbers in the above paragraph represent CO2 produced from different sources, including industry and air transportation. If we agree that passenger cars contribute about 15% of the total CO2 emissions, the cars in China would be responsible for about 1.73 gigatons of CO2 emissions and, in the US, 0.786 gigatons.
Electric cars have been presented as the solution to the problem of climate change caused by motor vehicles. Many are starting to take them seriously, as 6.6 million buyers opted for EVs in 2021.
TechCrunch.com reports that while there was a 15.3% decline in general vehicle sales in the first quarter of 2022, “The only brands to post sales gains were all-electric.”
Kayleigh Bateman of the World Economic Forum reports that from 2022, the law in England will force all new homes to have electric vehicle charging points. Even if the law in your country isn’t making this a requirement yet, we suggest you consider it when building or renovating your home.
An electric car differs from an internal combustion engine car in several ways. The most obvious one is that the former is powered by electricity while the latter gets its energy from burning gasoline.
Another difference is in the wire harnesses. Harnesses are wires and cables that transmit electricity and signals to different parts of the car, and EVs depend a lot on the transmission of signals and electric current. Thus, they use more wiring than ICE vehicles.
CopperAlliance.org reports, “Each type of EV uses considerably more copper than traditional vehicles with internal combustion engines.” The organization uses numbers to explain what this means:
Regarding whether electric cars help solve the problem of climate change caused by cars, there are still questions about the emissions produced when manufacturing and charging these cars.
Notwithstanding these concerns, Saheli Roy Choudhury of CNBC.com concluded that “Experts broadly agree that electric vehicles create a lower carbon footprint over the course of their lifetime than do cars and trucks that use traditional, internal combustion engines.”
Many may understand this, but there are still questions about the difference between the emissions of an electric car and a traditional combustion engine car. This is a question that Jordan Almond of MotorBiscuit.com attempts to answer.
Almond cites research indicating that 17.5 tons of carbon dioxide are emitted when an electric car is manufactured, with the manufacturing of the battery being responsible for a high proportion of these emissions. He puts things in context by saying that a conventional internal combustion engine produces around 45 metric tons of CO2 in its lifetime.
More consumers are choosing EVs. This is a reality acknowledged by the multinational consultancy firm Ernst & Young, which reports, “The number of consumers looking to buy electric vehicles (EVs) has hit a global tipping point.”
Ernst & Young provides some numbers from a 2022 survey:
The World Economic Forum (WEF) reports, “More electric cars are now sold every week than in the whole of 2012.” But why are more people choosing EVs?
According to the WEF, “Factors like climate change and commitments to reach net-zero are helping drive the global shift to emissions-free motoring.”
For many people, an EV is a practical choice because it reduces traveling costs as there is no need to buy gasoline. Also, since EVs have fewer moving parts, a driver saves on costs related to replacing consumables like oil and filters.
If there is one insight that Covid-19 left us with, it is that we can travel less and do more online. The lessons learned from how we lived during the pandemic’s peak may augur well for the story of cars and climate change.
For example, some companies now allow employees to work from home full-time, meaning less travel and fewer emissions.
More EVs can be seen on our roads today, and governments worldwide are imposing heavy penalties on car manufacturers that fail to adhere to emission limits. We believe these factors can potentially change the story of cars and climate change into a positive one in the future.