Deeper shift towards renewable sources of energy and greater efficiency holds more promise for Beijing than a wholesale switch to electric and hybrid vehicles, which will lead to higher emissions in the short run
China needs more than electric cars to tackle emissions
Could China, the world's largest automobile market, help address the threat of global warming if it went completely electric? The answer isn’t as obvious as it seems.
China has been making great strides towards electrification. Electric vehicle sales are booming - consumers bought more than 300,000 last year, and more than 5 million are expected to be on the road by 2020. The government has also just announced bold plans for a wave of big new battery factories.
Encouraging as that may be, though, the move away from conventional cars and trucks won’t immediately reduce the country’s carbon emissions. On the contrary, the production and use of electric vehicles in China actually produces more greenhouse gases and consumes more energy overall. In the short run, China’s moves could make greenhouse emissions go up, not down.
In an illustration of China's push for an all-electric car market, Chinese-owned Volvo said on Wednesday all car models launched after 2019 will be electric or hybrids, making it the first major traditional car maker to set a date for phasing out vehicles powered solely by the internal combustion engine.
The Sweden-based company, owned by Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, will continue to produce pure combustion-engine Volvo models before that date but its move signals the eventual end of about a century of Volvos powered solely that way.
While electric and hybrid vehicles are still only a small fraction of new car sales, they are gaining ground at the premium end of the market, where Volvo operates and where Elon Musk's Tesla Motors has been a pure-play battery car maker from Day 1. As technology improves and prices fall, many in the industry expect mass-market adoption to follow.
"This announcement marks the end of the solely combustion engine powered car," said Volvo Cars chief executive Hakan Samuelsson.
The company said five new models set to be launched in 2019 through 2021 - three of them Volvos and two Polestar-branded - would all be fully electric.
"These five cars will be supplemented by a range of petrol and diesel plug-in hybrids and mild hybrid 48-volt options on all models," Volvo said. "This means that there will in future be no Volvo cars without an electric motor."
The electric models will be produced at Volvo plants world wide - it has factories in Europe and China and is building one in the United States - while development costs will be met from within its existing budget, Mr Samuelsson said.
Electric vehicles seem environmentally benign. They are lightweight, energy-efficient and potentially greener than their conventional counterparts. But the reality is more complex. Their manufacture entails energy-intensive mining of rare elements, such as the lithium required for batteries. Their fuel efficiency can make up for that in the course of use but only if the electricity is produced in a relatively clean way.
Developed nations get the best results because they tend to generate electricity using cleaner sources. By one estimate, the average electric car in the US has just half the greenhouse gas impact of a conventional car over its life cycle. It is even less in the western, southern and north-eastern parts of the country, where power plants draw more renewable power. A comprehensive energy model being developed by Argonne National Laboratory produces a similar estimate.
Europe does well, too. Looking at all the processes involved in the manufacture, use and ultimate disposal of a range of electrical and conventional vehicles, Norwegian researchers found that electric vehicles offer at least a 10 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (assuming they were driven about 150,000 kilometres). To be sure, electric vehicle batteries impose a host of other environmental costs linked to the mining of rare metals. But on carbon emissions, electric vehicles win out.
The real challenge to reducing greenhouse gas emissions will be in developing nations, especially China, which is likely to dominate the global auto market for decades to come. Unfortunately, the structure of China’s industrial economy will make it difficult. One recent study by Chinese engineers estimated that electric vehicles generate about a 50 per cent increase in both greenhouse gas emissions and total energy consumption over their life cycle. The manufacture of the lithium-ion battery accounts for 13 per cent of the energy consumption and 20 per cent of the emissions.
The most promising ways to make electric vehicles better have little to do with the vehicles themselves. Energy infrastructure matters more. In China, electricity production still relies quite heavily on high-carbon sources such as coal. Hence, the manufacturing of the batteries and the operation of the vehicle produce more pollution than they would elsewhere. The recycling industry in China is also underdeveloped. US steel is about 70 per cent recycled, compared with just 11 per cent in China.
Electric vehicles can help China reduce greenhouse emissions only in the context of a deeper shift towards renewable sources of energy and greater efficiency. No one technology alone can create a green revolution.