Electric Cars Might Not Even Lower Carbon Emissions, Report Finds

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July 14, 2023

The large amount of carbon emissions associated with producing—and even charging—electric vehicles means the cars might not even help the environment, according to a new report.

While electric vehicles do not produce tailpipe emissions, the materials that must be mined, processed, and refined to build the cars produce considerably more carbon dioxide than those used to build their gas-powered counterparts. In many cases, meanwhile, the power used to charge electric vehicles comes from natural gas and coal. Those emissions, Manhattan Institute senior fellow Mark Mills argues in a Wednesday report, "substantially offset reductions from avoiding gasoline." Additionally, driving an electric vehicle instead of a gas-powered one "could even lead to a net increase in emissions."

For Mills, the findings expose a "fatal flaw" in the rationale behind President Joe Biden's electric vehicle mandates. Biden's Environmental Protection Agency in April announced a rule that effectively forces U.S. automakers to ensure two-thirds of the vehicles they sell are electric by 2032. That rule, the Environmental Protection Agency said at the time, will "tackle the climate crisis" by avoiding billions of tons of carbon emissions.

But the agency's forecast and other assessments that claim electric vehicles will "play a central role in radically cutting carbon dioxide emissions" are flawed, according to Mills's report. "Every claim for EVs reducing emissions is a rough estimate or an outright guess based on averages, approximations, or aspirations," the report says. "The variables and uncertainties in emissions from energy-intensive mining and processing of minerals used to make EV batteries are a big wild card in the emissions calculus."

Some forecasts the report cites, for example, assume that the minerals used to build electric cars come from North America, where power grids are much cleaner. "In reality," Mills writes, "China refines 50%-90% of the world's suite of energy minerals," and the emissions associated with Chinese refineries are considerably higher than those seen in the United States or Europe. As a result, Mills calculated scenarios in which driving an electric vehicle "leads to greater lifetime emissions" than driving a gas-powered car.

"If implemented, [internal combustion engine] bans will lead to … draconian constraints on freedoms and unprecedented impediments to affordable and convenient driving," the report states. "And it will have little to no impact on global carbon emissions. In fact, the bans and EV mandates are more likely to cause a net increase in emissions."

In addition to Mills's environmental concerns, top car companies and powerful labor unions have warned of the job losses that they say will come with Biden's electric car mandate. The United Auto Workers—a longtime force in Democratic politics that endorsed Biden in 2020—is concerned that the mandate will force the auto industry to fire laborers, as electric vehicles require fewer parts and thus fewer workers to build. The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, a trade group that represents the world's largest car companies, similarly argued in comments sent to the Biden administration that the mandate is "neither reasonable nor achievable" and would come with price hikes.

Despite Biden's incessant promotion of electric vehicles—the Democrat last year fawned over Ford's electric truck during a test drive at a plant in Michigan—the cars have nonetheless failed to win over the American public. Less than one-fifth of Americans say they're very likely to make their next vehicle an electric one, an April poll shows, with most citing the high cost associated with electric vehicles as the primary deterrent. Electric vehicles on average cost at least $10,000 more than their gas-powered counterparts.