The Impact of EV’s on CO2 Will Be Tiny but They Might Mitigate Another Problem

Seeking to reduce CO2 emissions into the atmosphere is an admirable objective, and one can not help but be somewhat impressed by the (admittedly modest) technological improvements aimed at providing various forms of “green” energy, but the most puzzling aspect of public campaigning for these objectives is how electric vehicles seem to have become a sort of centrepiece for such campaigns.

With great fanfare, our government has announced its intention to require all cars, SUVs and light trucks sold after the beginning of 2035 to be electric vehicles (EVs) or plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) with at least an 80km electric range (except for police, fire and ambulance vehicles). It has been implied that this is somehow a huge step towards eliminating CO2 emissions from fossil fuels. And yet all actual data suggest that if we were serious about wishing to curtail CO2 emissions, EVs might be well down on the list when compared to other changes, which would have a greater effect sooner, and at a lesser cost.

On the other hand, as I will argue below, a gradual introduction of (better than currently available) electric vehicles would partially solve another serious problem that has not caught the public fancy to the same extent as CO2 emissions.

To best understand questions surrounding CO2 emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, a somewhat tedious review of some numbers is essential. First, it is worth a look at types of fossil fuel consumption in Canada, and the amounts. Canada burns about 30 million tons of gasoline per year, to fuel things that move (vehicles). We also burn about 15 million tons of diesel fuel, a lot of it for vehicles, but ones which are, as yet, less likely candidates for near-term electrification.

In addition, we also burn 116 million tons of natural gas, of which 72 percent is for industrial processes and electric power generation, while other commercial use is 14 percent and residential is another 14 percent. On top of that, we burn more than 13 million tons of coal for industrial purposes and just under 2 million tons of heating oil. All these applications are for things that do not move about.

So, perhaps one might imagine that, in trying to reduce CO2 emissions, we might consider trying to address some of the fuel applications related to fixed installations, rather than vehicles, because the low-hanging fruit is in the non-mobile uses. Furthermore, it is worth noting that not all carbonaceous fuels are equal when it comes to the amount of CO2 released per unit of energy recovered. Combustion of coal, for example, releases 1.39 times as much CO2 per unit of energy produced as does gasoline, so that burning the above-mentioned 13 million tons of coal would be equivalent (in CO2 terms) to burning some 18 million tons of gasoline.

As for diesel and heating oil, they are only about 7 percent worse than gasoline, so that brings their combined use up to almost exactly equivalent to 18 million tons of gasoline as well. Natural gas, on the other hand, generates only 0.77 times as much CO2 per unit of energy produced as does gasoline, so that burning 116 million tons of natural gas would be equivalent to burning just under 90 million tons of gasoline.

Add these all together, and we find that gasoline, as a motor fuel, accounts for only about 19 percent of our CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning. It is an even smaller percentage of total CO2 release, as there are plenty of non-fossil-fuel sources as well, including the burning or decomposition of wood and biomass.

Now let us imagine how much of that 19 percent of those CO2 emissions from combustion of fossil fuels would be reduced if we fully embraced the EV transition for cars. Should the government be successful in its initiative about blocking the marketing of new gasoline-powered cars by 2035, then by perhaps 2041 or so, as many as half of the private passenger vehicles might be EV’s, and hence half of that 19 percent of CO2 tailpipe emissions might be eliminated.

This figure would be rather too optimistic if a non-trivial fraction of the new sales are PHEVs rather than EVs. But even if half the operating fleet were pure EVs or PHEV’s that never went beyond their electric range, would that really drop this type of CO2 emission in Canada by 9.5 percent? Certainly not, because we then need to look at where the electricity comes from to power those EV’s. And that raises the awkward question of “where do you live?”.

If, perchance, you live and drive in Ontario, where 89.8 percent of electricity comes from notionally “clean” sources, that rate of EV uptake might knock down up to 8.5 percent of our CO2 emissions from fossil fuels However, if you live in Alberta, where only 32.9 percent of electricity comes from notionally “clean” sources, the effect would be tiny, of the order of a 3 percent reduction of fossil fuel CO2 emissions.

Furthermore, the above-described CO2 emission reductions, limited as they are, are somewhat optimistic, as they ignore transmission and charging losses.

If we take Canada as a whole, about 81.4 percent of our electricity is from notionally “clean” sources. For the US, that figure is only 40 percent. By “clean” sources, I include nuclear, which provides 15 percent of all power in Canada, 18.6 percent in the US and 31.2 percent in the EU.

Thus, the 2036 target of 50 percent EVs (and still assuming none are hybrids) for Canada as a whole would only drop our CO2 emissions from the burning of fossil fuels by 7.7 percent. Applying the same logic to the US would only result in a 3.8 percent reduction in those CO2 emissions. Again, I note that these figures are optimistic, because they neglect not only transmission and charging losses, but also do not take into account the fact that EV’s are heavier than their internal combustion counterparts, and therefore take more power to move them.

So, a logical conclusion would be that far greater gains could be made on the CO2 release issue by modernizing power generation, increasing the availability of electricity, and substituting it, where possible, in a host of fixed industrial processes that currently use coal and natural gas, including power generation itself. A strong case can be made for the building of more modern fission power plants, and I note with approval that Canada has decided to launch some pilot projects to evaluate some of the new competing technologies. Photovoltaic sources also continue to improve as well.

But the complexity and cost of converting to EV’s and adding the infrastructure they need is huge compared to modernizing fixed installations. Furthermore, they will continue to be problematic in cold seasons, and will have range and charging rate issues, until such time as new battery technologies (perhaps sodium batteries) reach the market, which may be many years hence. It is to be hoped as well that those new nascent battery technologies will result in batteries with less potential for hard-to-extinguish blazes (or “venting with flame”, as one of the prominent researchers in that field once described it to me).

So, is there an up-side to the current over-promotion of EV’s? Possibly, but the main positive impact is likely to be in an unexpected area — human health.

There is an effect on human health from the exhaust from internal combustion-powered motor vehicles. While it is true that, in much of the developed world, there is now a requirement that motor vehicles have catalytic converters (and more recently three-way catalytic converters) with the added requirement that recently manufactured diesels be equipped with diesel particulate filters, these are imperfect technologies only languidly enforced. Furthermore, given the longevity of diesel-powered vehicles, a non-trivial fraction of the diesel-powered fleet predates those requirements. So, motor vehicles are still producing non-trivial amounts of interesting unpleasant compounds and tiny particles that form aerosols.

Especially where motor vehicles are concentrated, such as in cities, the aerosols made up of tiny particles released in the exhaust of internal combustion engines and from other combustion activities are a non-trivial health hazard. How great is the hazard?

Well, based on WHO data, about 12.5 percent of all those who die on earth in any year have done so because of breathing in human-made aerosols. That amounts to about 7 million deaths a year. Of course, not all of the human-produced aerosols are caused by combustion of carbonaceous fuels. But the aerosolized particulates from such combustion make up the greatest part of human-produced harmful aerosols. And, yes, there are plenty of natural aerosols, but they are mostly salt in the atmosphere from the oceans, and, interestingly, salt is soluble in water, so if one breathes it in, it just dissolves into our interstitial fluid, adding a bit more salt to the blood, to be excreted by the kidneys. The human-made particulates are the vast bulk of the dangerous ones, and, of those, most come from burning carbon-based fuels. Lesser amounts come from other industrial processes.

So, if 7 million people a year die from inhaling human-made aerosols, a good guess might be that perhaps 4-5 million a year are killed by the particulates from burning oil, coal and gas. That’s two holocausts every three years!

I have reviewed the WHO methodology for making these estimates, and while, like most epidemiological research, it does have some conjectural aspects, the methodology is generally sound and not slanted. So broadly, the figures are likely fairly accurate. That would imply that about 8 percent of all those who die on Earth do so because of aerosols created by combustion.

The centres of cities are notoriously bad for higher concentrations of these aerosols, and a portion of those aerosols come from internal combustion engines in vehicles. A gradual shift to EVs in these tightly packed urban areas might well be a good thing. One must also bear in mind that, while cutting back a bit of CO2 production, for which the effect is blended worldwide, may have virtually no impact locally, the effect of cutting back on aerosol production has its greatest effects near where the decrease has occurred, because aerosolized particulate distribution tends to be concentrated near the originating source. Hence the improvement in health and longevity will be greatest near the point of cutback. That means that any reduction carried out in our cities will differentially benefit the residents and near neighbors of those cities, rather than being uniformly distributed worldwide.

What does all this then imply for improving public policy? A logical approach would be to back off somewhat on pushing EV’s generally, partly because they are still a somewhat immature technology, and partly because those resources and incentives aimed at EV’s could, if redirected towards improving industrial processes and power generation, result in much greater reductions in CO2 release (and probably on particulate release).

However, a smaller scale incentive program to encourage the use of EV’s in dense urban areas could be justified on the grounds of the likely positive impact upon human health. One could even imagine the development of simpler, lighter and quite short range EV’s for that purpose, which would also not need to be capable of highway speeds. A non-trivial number of prototypes exist, but have not attracted the same level of attention as the EV’s that look like clones of internal combustion engine powered motor cars. Some jurisdictions already have developed rule sets which allow for and even encourage the use of such “low speed vehicles” that can use public roadways, but most have not.

So, why has our government made EV’s that look like conventional sedans and SUVs the centrepiece of its CO2 reduction strategy? The cynic in me thinks that there are two reasons, one somewhat worthy and the other very much less so.

The worthy reason might be to make individual citizens feel like they are participating directly in the changes needed, as a tool for building consensus. The unworthy reason is that we have a government which has, in most policy areas, descended into performative virtue signalling rather than actual action.

To be fair, this is not a uniquely Canadian situation and may owe something to the transmogrification of politics engendered by the communications revolution, but it has certainly become fulminating with the current federal government. With that mindset, and with EV’s being vastly more visible than improvements in power generating plants or large industrial plants, it is not much of a surprise that EV’s have become the expensive centrepiece of environmental policy and politics.

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