New Study Shares Doubts Electric Vehicle Transition Can Really Reduce Carbon Emissions

New Study Shares Doubts Electric Vehicle Transition Can Really Reduce Carbon Emissions
Electric vehicles are charging at a charging station in Monterey Park, Calif., on April 12, 2023. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)
Ryan Morgan

A new study by the Manhattan Institute is casting doubt on the degree to which electric vehicles (EVs) are reducing carbon emissions and the economic viability of rapidly adopting such vehicles.

The report (pdf), published on July 12 by Manhattan Institute senior fellow Mark Mills, states no one knows how much carbon emissions will decline with a transition from conventional internal combustion engine vehicles to electric vehicles. The report also concludes that no one knows when, if ever, EV prices will reach parity with the traditional vehicle options currently on the market.

Mr. Mills wrote that determining carbon emissions and future costs for EVs is dependent on many variables that could lead to numerous uncertainties.

“Imagining a hypothetical all-EV world requires acknowledging the unavoidable fact of a rats’ nest of assumptions, guesses, and ambiguities regarding emissions,” he wrote. “Much of the necessary data may never be collectible in any normal regulatory fashion, given the technical uncertainties and the variety and opacity of geographic factors, as well as the proprietary nature of many of the processes.”

True EV Carbon Emissions Unclear: Report

Mr. Mills wrote that while it’s easy to calculate a traditional vehicle’s carbon emissions, it’s “impossible” to do so with EVs.

“While, self-evidently, there are no emissions while driving an EV, emissions occur elsewhere—before the first mile is ever driven and when the vehicle is parked to refuel,” he wrote.

Whereas a traditional car will use a fuel tank carrying about 80 pounds of gasoline, Mr. Mills wrote that EV’s rely on a battery typically weighing about 1,000 pounds and comprised of copper, nickel, aluminum, graphite, cobalt, manganese, and lithium. Mr. Mills noted research showing limited data about the emissions produced to obtain these minerals and the possibility that these emissions can “vary considerably across companies and regions.”

He explained that most estimates for EV carbon emissions are based on calculations of average emissions in the production and recharging process, but that the true energy used can vary widely.

Mr. Mills wrote that its easy to estimate carbon emissions from traditional vehicles by simply knowing the miles they’ve gone, and that the emissions produced from manufacturing these cars and producing the gasoline needed to fuel them account for about 10 to 20 percent of an internal combustion engine vehicle’s lifetime emissions. He said by comparison, there are a lot of unknowns about the emissions brought about in the initial production of an EV. He wrote that the emissions created by recharging an EV battery will also depend on a number of variables like the type of energy grid used and hourly variations in electricity production.

“Accounting for those realities, and not a hypothetical average kWh, reveals that CO2 emissions per EV fill-up can range from zero to as high as the same as just burning gasoline to drive the same number of miles,” Mr. Mills wrote.
Speaking to Fox News on Tuesday, Mr. Mills said there are “realistic scenarios” in which driving an EV will produce more carbon emissions than driving a traditional vehicle.

Costs of EVs and Traditional Cars

While asserting that the carbon offset by EVs is highly variable, Mr. Mills argues that the trajectory for EV costs is similarly reliant on a number of different factors. He noted that the costs of producing EV batteries hasn’t followed a consistent trajectory over the years.

“The claim of plummeting battery costs is true only in hindsight, measured since the inception of lithium technology; this is a trend typical for all new technologies. But like all technologies in the world of atoms, not bits, after early years on the manufacturing learning curve, the rate of improvement slows dramatically,” he wrote. “Over the past half-dozen years, battery cost has decreased slowly; and over the past couple of years, prices have reversed. Battery costs have risen 20% since 2021.”

“Future battery costs now depend almost entirely on a single fact: Basic materials now account for 60%–80% of the cost to make batteries. Even if labor and capital costs decline (both are currently trending up), battery prices (and future upstream emissions) are now firmly in the hands of decisions made by global miners and refiners,” he added.

Mr. Mills cast further doubt on the timeline for rapidly transitioning to EVs, stating a greater supply of minerals will be needed to provide the materials for these EVs. He noted an estimate by the International Energy Agency (IEA) that found it takes 10 to 16 years to open a single new lithium mine.

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