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The Smoke and Mirrors of Electric Vehicles

Elon Musk and the Chinese Communist Party play the same EV game.

Environmentalists anticipate a future where more responsible behavior of individuals, corporations, and governments, pulls us back from the brink of climate catastrophe. Yet, environmentalism is often as much about feelings as about reality.

Much interest focuses on electric vehicles as a greener form of travel. This aspiration turned Tesla into a fast-growing car company giant.

The Tesla Tale

Electric cars seem like a good idea, particularly in cities where car exhaust is a major contributor to smog that has very serious health implications. Advocates like to claim that electric vehicles provide global benefits also by reducing the combustion of fossil fuels and associated carbon emissions.

Obvious though that case may seem, when one digs beneath the surface, it crumbles . Like other climate-related behaviors, this makes people feel better despite worsening carbon emissions. The underlying psychology is comparable to religious rituals. Most of the electricity used in EVs is still generated using fossil fuels. The pollution is merely moved from tailpipes to smokestacks.

While reduced urban pollution has undoubted health benefits, the planet doesn't care where the carbon is emitted. The resulting climate change is the same.

Thanks to numerous taxes on gasoline, electricity is a cheaper source of energy. Owners of electric vehicles travel more miles, thereby increasing carbon emissions because their fuel costs are significantly less.

At present, electric cars cost more than those with internal combustion engines and are therefore luxury vehicles. The additional vehicle cost reflects higher costs of manufacture. Higher costs translate into increased carbon emissions. This is particularly true of the batteries that contain rare materials that are difficult to mine. Indeed, the carbon cost of an electric vehicle in its lifetime is not necessarily an improvement over gas-powered cars. While wealthy customers might like to imagine they are saving the planet, electric vehicles incur serious climate costs just as most other luxury items from diamonds to mansions and yachts do.

The wealthy are not alone in wanting to absolve their guilt through superficial environmentalism. They are joined by diverse actors from the Catholic Church trying to move on from the child abuse scandals to the Chinese Communist Party smarting from the bad publicity associated with Uighur repression and Hong Kong despotism.

China's Environmental Record

The Beijing Olympics, in 2008, was spoiled by air-quality problems that made it difficult for athletes to compete in some events despite the fact that half of the city traffic was taken out by alternating days for odd and even registration numbers.

That disgrace likely spurred government investment in electronic vehicles. This approach was also motivated by a desire to show leadership in environmentalism on the world stage.

There is a problem, however. The electricity used in Chinese cars comes overwhelmingly from coal that still accounts for four-fifths of energy generation. This is admittedly less than it used to be as inroads are made in alternative energy such as solar and wind.

The key to the environmental impact of EVs is the source of the electricity used and coal generation has the biggest carbon footprint. Chinese researchers concluded that EVs produce 50 percent more carbon emissions than gas-powered vehicles, much of it in the form of emissions from coal-fired electricity generation.

Far from being a leader in preventing climate change, China's smokestack pollution makes it the worst polluter in the world. This depressing picture can change and the biggest cause of optimism is the emergence of renewable energy as a viable competitor to fossil fuels.

Renewable Energy

The problem with electric cars is that most still use fossil fuels as their original energy source in electricity generation. The U.S. is still getting four-fifths of its electricity from fossil fuels, for example. It had been difficult to use renewables until recently because the cost was greater. Improving technology changed this picture. The great success story here is solar power that used to be 10 times as expensive as fossil fuels. As an electronic technology, solar power follows Moore's Law in becoming progressively more efficient and cheaper.

With improvements in many different aspects of manufacture, solar cells became appreciably cheaper. In areas with good sun exposure, such as California, solar is now cheaper than fossil fuels so the economic argument and the environmental one come down on the same side. Countries less favored with sunlight, such as Germany (ironically a pioneer in solar power) find that EVs like Tesla's Model 3 emit more lifetime carbon per mile than diesel cars like the Mercedes Model 220 D.

Electric utilities are already on board and most of the new utility-scale generation is from solar rather than fossil fuels. President Biden's infrastructure plan needs to put more emphasis on green energy to power cars rather than just restoring America's glory as a car manufacturer. Renewable energy must be the priority so that EVs can finally be part of the solution instead of merely aggravating the problem while creating the illusion that something has been done.