Pollution from EVs versus petrol cars kicks up an electrical storm

Studies show it's foolish to mindlessly pursue EVs when they could be doing more harm than good.

In China research has shown that energy produced from coal and used to power EVs creates more harmful pollutants than petrol cars. Fang Xinwu / AP
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It's been a very tough week for environmentalists. First, so desperate is the US administration to promote "green" cars that it is considering raising the incentive to buy electric vehicles from the generous to the exorbitant. But even that may not be the environmental panacea everyone expects since a new study says that, in China at least, EVs are actually responsible for more health-affecting pollution than petrol-fuelled cars when their energy comes from fossil fuel-based electricity production. And, to cap it off, another research study claims that coal, not oil, is the real "greenhouse" killer.

Like I said, it was a bad week for environmentalists.

As for the American news, Barack Obama recently tabled for a budget for 2013 that bumped up the incentives for buying an electric car. Or, as they say in congressional legalese, any vehicle that "operates primarily on an alternative to petroleum" which, with apologies to those shilling natural gas, really means anything that plugs in. The Democrats' provisional budget - and, you can bet that Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum et al on the right are altering that to delusional - sees the maximum incentive for the purchase of EVs increased from US$7,500 (Dh27,550) to US$10,000.

Even the shallowest of car salesmen knows that you only put incentives on cars people don't want to buy and you only increase already substantial subsidies if the consuming public seems particularly reluctant. Indeed, 10 big ones is extremely strong medicine, usually reserved for hard-selling luxury saloons long past their due date. There's just no way to dress up $10,000 "on the hood" of a US$35,200 Nissan Leaf as anything other than desperate measures. And, unlike the current tax credit, which ends after the car maker sells the first 200,000 alternatively fuelled vehicles, the proposed increase has no such limits, the credit diminishing after 2016, presumably after meeting Obama's ambitious target of "putting one million advanced technology vehicles on the road by 2015". Of course, with fewer than 18,000 Chevrolet Volts and Nissan Leafs sold in the USA last year (and barely 26,000 worldwide, albeit in limited markets), it's little wonder the administration is a tad nervous. A sceptic might even go so far as to postulate that Americans seem a little reluctant to embrace this electrified future.

There's worse news. The University of Tennessee study on Chinese EVs recently concluded that the vehicles might emit more pollution than petrol-powered cars and even, get this, diesel buses. Its conclusion is that, because three-quarters of Chinese electric power is coal-fuelled, an EV operating in China is actually more harmful than a conventional automobile. The study was conducted in 34 cities across the country and measured everything from dust and metals to the acids produced in the coal-fired electricity production process.

Of course, any such hiccup has enormous repercussions, as China has committed extensive resources to increasing the use of electric vehicles and because it is the fastest-growing automotive market in the world. "An implicit assumption has been that air quality and health impacts are lower for electric vehicles than for conventional vehicles," noted Chris Cherry, assistant professor of civil and mechanical engineering at the University of Tennessee. "Our findings challenge that by comparing what is emitted by vehicle use to what people are actually exposed to. Prior studies have only examined environmental impacts by comparing emission factors or greenhouse gas emissions."

Of course, there are numerous other studies showing that, even in China, electric vehicles are cleaner and greener than the petrol-fuelled variety, and even Prof Cherry says his study "emphasizes that electric vehicles are attractive if they are powered by a clean energy source". Nonetheless, it points to a great failing in the great pollution debate, namely that the world's two greatest polluters - the one with the most cars and the other now selling more cars per year than any other country - both get the preponderance of their energy from the dirtiest of sources.

Indeed, according to another study - this one by one of the world's top climate scientists, Andrew Weaver, of the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada - coal is a far greater threat to our planet than burning other fossil fuels. Weaver estimates that burning all the commercially available oil in the world would raise the overall temperature by just 1°C but that firing all the coal still readily accessible in the world would increase the temperature by a disastrous 15°C. Yet, there is no public outrage against coal, no groundswell of protest against carbonised plant matter. Filmgoers are not flocking to documentaries lamenting the evils of coal-fed electrical plants.

For the record, I have nothing against a cleaner Earth. Indeed, I believe the automotive industry should and must curb its emissions footprint. What I vehemently oppose, however, is the hypocrisy that sees the piously environmental willing to push us back to the transportation industry's stone age - as in electric cars that can't get out of the city core because their owners fear their limited range will leave them stranded - simply because, everyday, they can see the object of their ire while coal-fired electric generators are far from their everyday commute. Out of sight, out of mind is not a justifiable defence for the puritanical rage of all those who see the automobile as the great evil while virtually ignoring an equal, or even greater, issue.

What scares me most about this devotion to anything electric is that if the consuming public doesn't get with this greener-than-thou programme - if even the prospect of ludicrously large financial incentives are not enough to place us on the righteous path - then perhaps these same great minds will decide, since consumers aren't smart enough to determine on their own, that the electric vehicle is our salvation, that it will be perfectly justifiable to force us to buy them. And the only thing left to buy in dealerships will be glorified electric golf carts.