Chart of the Day: Lifecycle CO2 Emissions for Electric, Small, and Midsize Cars

Electric cars like the Tesla Model S are an amazing technological leap forward, but by themselves don’t change the automobility picture. Here’s a chart from a recent Financial Times story [subscription only!] about a “lifecycle” carbon footprint study, which looks at CO2 from production and recycling of cars in addition to their emissions while they are used.

The chart, via Ritholz blog:

As you can see, smaller cars are still “greener” than a big Tesla, at least by this measure. Here’s a quote from the story:

The MIT data substantiate a study from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology last year: “Larger electric vehicles can have higher lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions than smaller conventional vehicles.”

(I do wonder about a car like the Nissan Leaf, though, and where it might fit in this picture?)

The big takeaway, though, is that to really reduce transportation CO2 you have to reduce driving. Electric cars are a nice marginal change, but they are not gamechangers. Cars are always going to be a problem for solving climate change, even if they don’t have a gas tank.

12 thoughts on “Chart of the Day: Lifecycle CO2 Emissions for Electric, Small, and Midsize Cars

  1. tmart

    I can’t access the article, but I’m assuming the per-km emissions here are based on the emissions per kWh for grid electricity in the region? If so, there’s still an argument for electric cars, since their emissions per km can go down over the car’s lifetime as the grid (god and government willing) transitions to a higher share of renewables, whereas the emissions of the ICE can’t be improved once it rolls off the line.

    Still agree with the broader point that, electric or otherwise, smaller vehicles are better, and fewer km of private vehicle travel is best.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      The chart is labelled “in the US midwest” so I am suspecting you are correct. If it were in the Pacific Northwest or somewhere with less coal reliance, it might look different!

  2. JohnH

    Or if you installed your own solar panels (and wouldn’t have otherwise). Although, they too, have a similar lifecycle chart!

  3. David MarkleDavid Markle

    Apparently the figures also include emissions during the raw materials, refining and manufacturing process.

  4. Scott

    They show the use emissions for the Tesla and the little Mitsubishi as about equal. That’s the coal and natural gas. Use more wind, like we do in Minnesota vs. Ohio, or use solar, like JohnH suggested and the picture changes significantly.

    Presumably, the difference between the Tesla’s manufacturing emissions and the BMWs are largely the battery. Just because the car is worn out (which the Tesla should last a whole lot longer than the BMW), doesn’t mean the battery is. 2/3 of the battery’s initial production emissions will still be useful after the car is retired, to be used as a PowerWall, in one of those utility scale container batteries, or some other ongoing use.

    All that said, the point of the article remains valid: what you plug the EV into matters. A lot.

  5. Monte Castleman

    What’s the life of a Tesla anyway? 270,000 kilometers, or 168,000 miles is on the low end for an ICE car unless you have a German luxury car or a Chrysler product, and Mitsubishi is down there too. How would this change if you used an ICE car that was average in quality, like a GM or a Ford, or could potentially go 250,000 miles, like a Toyota or a Honda?

      1. Monte Castleman

        My stepfather had an interesting conversation with a guy that rebuilds electric batteries for a living- seems there’s a lot of difference in life expectancy, and that he’s seeing failures with Honda batteries right and left, but Camry batteries he doesn’t even bother to rebuild them. They almost never go bad and thus there’s so many perfectly good used batteries around that no one wants them and you can buy one for a couple of hundred dollars. A Camry hybrid gets smashed and they have to remove the battery before crushing it, but there’s not a car that needs one.

        I decided against writing an article about my thought on TaaS because there’s not really a lot of pictures to break up a mountain of text, and I don’t really have any data, just my thoughts about how it (doesn’t) fit in to our society, this link seems like more TaaS promotion. Point taken about how dumb Kodak was, but changing form a film to a digital camera is a lot different than giving up owning a car and sitting down next to a stranger in a small car that might not have showered for a week, or insists on talking about why he hates the Twins, or might even pull a weapon and rob you.

        Moreso if we go to specialized vehicles which is one of the supposed advantages of TaaS, everyone is going to want a RV-like sleeper cab for a trip to Chicago for the weekend, but no one will during the week. Meanwhile all the small personal and shared vehicles used for commuting will sit idle during the weekend, and in fact most of the day outside of peak commuting periods. Given this and how much salt we throw on the roads I have a hard time believing electric vehicles will last 500,000 miles here.

        Also right now we have 1) Vehicles that are impractical as an only car for most people (The Leaf), 2) Vehicles that are too expensive for most people (The S), and 3) Vehicles that Tesla can’t build (The 3). I’m not going to make any predictions on the demise of ICE vehicles until battery life and the self-driving technology get good and cheap enough. I don’t have any doubt it will happen, just that most of use will probably be buying at least one more ICE vehicle before we even think about it.

  6. GlowBoy

    Good discussion, although I think the choice of a Tesla P100D (the high-performance, biggest-battery variant made by Tesla, whose vehicles are considerably more impactful than any other BEV brand currently on the market) vs. Mirage (which gets better mpg than literally any other non-hybrid currently on the market) isn’t an accurate portrayal of the relative “greenness” of BEV vs. conventional cars.

    This is of particular interest because I just bought a used Nissan Leaf the other day. The 24 kWh battery pack in this vehicle, while many times the size of that used in a typical hybrid, is just 1/4 the size of that in a Tesla S-P100D, and the motor is less than 1/4 as powerful. This means the Tesla’s battery and motor require several times the inputs of Lithium and scarce rare-earth metals, the mining of which causes considerable environmental damage, compared to the Leaf.

    I’m not necessarily arguing that a 20-30kWh BEV is the most environmentally friendly car choice out there. If anything, a good hybrid (Prius, Camry, Fusion, etc.) is probably better, since the motor is much smaller yet, and the battery pack is < 1 kWh and in most cases a more environmentally friendly NiMH chemistry. Energy consumption is twice that of a typical BEV, of course, and only 20-40% better than Mirage, though far better than most ICE-only cars. It would have been interesting to put a popular hybrid into this comparison.

    Vehicle lifespan is proving to be at least as good as ICE cars, at least with the more popular hybrids from Toyota and Ford, though sadly not so much with the first couple generations of Hondas which used an inferior design. What will happen with BEVs remains to be seen, though my hope is that replacement battery pack prices will continue their fast decline and allow their owners to keep them running for a long time.

    As far as the impact of driving, it varies just so massively for BEVs. In Oregon our power mix was about 50/50 fossil/hydroelectric, but for 0.8 cents extra per kWh we opted for 100% renewable power that was mostly hydro and wind. From a CO2 perspective, that changes the game completely. Still waiting for something similar from Xcel – I need to look into our power options again now that we will be charging a BEV in the driveway.

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