Are Electric Cars Truly Zero-emission Vehicles?

Electric cars are a popular and common representation of today's heightened awareness about environmental awareness. But are electric cars truly zero-emission vehicles, or are they just the next big thing? Read this Buzzle article to know more.
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Comparison between electric and hybrid cars
Did You Know?
According to polarizing environmentalist Bjørn Lomborg's estimates, manufacturing and running a fully battery-powered car for 50,000 miles produces more CO2 than manufacturing and running a gasoline-powered car for 50,000 miles!
Electric cars are an important innovation in today's times of fuel scarcity, rising global awareness about the ill-effects of fossil fuels, and greater clamor for cleaner, 'greener' modes of traversing through all walks of life. As a consequence, they have become an icon of the green movement.

However, they are not without their detractors. Electric cars, hallowed in environmentally sensitive circles, are often the subject of criticism and even ridicule in others. This dichotomy has plagued the electric car industry ever since they became popular.

Here's our look at the debate around electric cars: Are they really worth the extra cash and lower speeds? Are they truly mankind's resounding answer to all the problems of the excessive consumption of fossil fuels?

Electric Cars: Green or Just Plain Red?

Electric cars are so popular that they have become a societal mark of one's environmental awareness, and driving one has become a badge of honor. Conversely, they are often the object of utter ridicule among petrolheads. Many electric cars claim to be 'zero-emission', but the facts don't always line up that way.

There are two types of electric cars currently in the market: hybrids and full-electric. Among those two, the latter is much more environment-friendly than hybrids, since they don't use fossil fuels at all.

Since hybrids use fossil fuels to generate their electrical supply, they, by necessity, have some emissions. Though the emissions from hybrid cars are much less harmful than normal cars, since they don't power the engine, they can't be called 'zero-emission vehicles'. That rules out the famous Toyota Prius, sorry every-celebrity-who-bought-it-because-it's-a-fashion-item-these-days. In fact, many gasoline-powered cars can achieve a much higher mileage than Prius models. In an episode of the BBC automotive show, Top Gear, a VW Polo equipped with Volkswagen's BlueMotion technology achieved a mileage of more than 70 mpg on a journey of more than 600 miles. Another episode of the show also revealed that when driven fast, the Prius delivers a lower mileage than a petrol-powered BMW 5-series car driven at an average speed. Though the show is self-confessedly spiteful towards the Prius, the fact that how you drive a car is more important than which car you drive is an important lesson.

Full-electric cars can be called zero-emission vehicles, since the batteries directly act on the car axles. However, there is a caveat even here. Though full-electric battery-powered cars don't emit harmful emissions per se, the generation of electricity itself is hardly a 'green' process.

Though hydroelectricity and nuclear power is slowly becoming a major part of worldwide energy generation, fossil fuels, especially coal, is still the majorly used (about 68% in the USA) fuel in electricity generation. Unless you live in Norway, which gets a spectacular 98% of its total electricity from hydropower, recharging a battery-powered car uses electricity that's probably been generated in plants that are just as dependent on fossil fuels as the W16 engine of a Bugatti Veyron.

The batteries used in electric cars contain materials that require extensive mining―the Prius has been called "the biggest user of rare earths of any object in the world"―which is hardly environment-friendly. The materials are mined from far-flung locations, and consume precious fossil fuels in getting to the factories. The manufacturing process of batteries also releases sulfuric and nitric gases that, as in the case of sulfur hexafluoride (SF6), can be up to 20,000 times more effective than CO2 in causing global warming.

Conclusion

What makes electric cars so popular is the fact that the emission doesn't occur from the car itself. However, since the electric car industry is still very much a niche enterprise, it is completely reliant on aspects that consume fossil fuels and thus do emit harmful, toxic emissions. Unless electricity generated from renewable or environment-friendly resources such as hydropower, wind turbines, or nuclear power (which is actually very 'green', contrary to popular misconceptions) is the major source of power in your country, your battery-powered car does emit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. It just does it indirectly and in lower amounts than fossil fuel-powered cars.

To sum it up, neither hybrids nor fully electric cars are completely emission-free in the present scenario, due to the involvement of other, fossil fuel-reliant factors. Also, in more expansive environmental discussions, a battery-powered car may cause more damage to the environment than regular cars. However, if you are only concerned about the emissions from your car, and especially if you live in a country with a significant emphasis on renewable fuels, fully battery-powered cars are zero-emission vehicles.
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Published: July 25, 2014
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