The Electric Car Paradox

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Electric vehicles are creating a lot of promise in the green world, but they don’t necessarily lead to lower greenhouse gas emissions. Consider the cases of China and Sweden, which have both heavily encouraged electric car ownership among their citizens but have failed to enjoy an attendant drop in transportation-sector carbon emissions.

What’s going on here? Firmin DeBrabander reports in Common Dreams on the Swedish experience, in which greener cars are being driven more miles:

Sweden … leads the world in per capita sales of “green cars.” To everyone’s surprise, however, greenhouse gas emissions from Sweden’s transportation sector are up.

Or perhaps we should not be so surprised after all. What do you expect when you put people in cars they feel good about driving (or at least less guilty), which are also cheap to buy and run? Naturally, they drive them more. So much more, in fact, that they obliterate energy gains made by increased fuel efficiency. … Based on Sweden’s experience with green cars, it’s daunting to imagine their possible impact here. Who can doubt that they’ll likely inspire Americans to make longer commutes to work, live even further out in the exurbs, bringing development, blacktop and increased emissions with them?

China is encountering a different problem: Its huge numbers of electric vehicles aren’t leading to greatly reduced emissions because of their power source, dirty coal. Andrew Revkin reports on the Dot Earth blog at the New York Times that “in all but three grid regions in China, electric vehicles produce more CO2 per mile because of the coal source for the power than the equivalent gasoline-powered car.”

The researcher behind these numbers, Lucia Green-Weiskel, takes care to point out that “electric vehicles are still a key (if not central) part of a low-carbon future in any country” and that her study shouldn’t be seen as anti-EV. But she notes that EV development must be accompanied by a move to cleaner energy sources if it is to make a dent in carbon emissions.

There’s a surefire step both the Swedes and the Chinese–and you and I, for that matter–could take to cut emissions: Drive and consume less. Writes DeBrabander:

In its current state, the green revolution is largely devoted to the effort to provide consumers with the products they have always loved, but now in affordable energy efficient versions. The thinking seems to be that through this gradual exchange, we can reduce our collective carbon footprint. Clearly, however, this approach is doomed if we don’t reform our absurd consumption habits, which are so out-of-whack that they risk undoing any environmental gains we might make.

Sources: Common Dreams, Dot Earth

Image by Håkan Dahlström, licensed under Creative Commons.

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