Can electric cars significantly help humanity get off fossil fuels?

Can electric cars significantly help humanity get off fossil fuels? The broader category of battery electric vehicles (BEVs) includes cars and trucks. The question is formulated in terms of fossil fuel use, but from the climate change standpoint, what matters is emission of greenhouse gases (GHG), which include CO2 (from fossil fuels and agriculture), methane and other.

Supporting data fo GHG:

  • Globally, in 2020, transportation made 16.2% of GHG emissions.[1] In 2014, it was 14%.[2]
  • In 2014, China had 30%, U.S. had 15% and EU-28 had 9% of global GHG emissions, together 54%.[2]
  • In the U.S. in 2020, 27% of GHG emissions were due to transportation.[3]
  • In the U.S. in 2020, light-duty vehicles and medium- and heavy-duty trucks amounted to 57% + 26% = 83% of GHG emissions by the transportation sector. The rest were aircraft, other, rail and ship and boats.[3]
  • In China in 2018, 8% of GHG emissions were due to transportation.[4]
  • The total lifetime GHG emissions of traditional cars versus electric cars depend on the sources of electricity and therefore vary by country. 'The researchers say average “lifetime“ emissions from electric cars are up to 70% lower than petrol cars in countries like Sweden and France (where most electricity comes from renewables and nuclear), and around 30% lower in the UK.'[5]
  • Globally, GHG emissions rose from 35.8 Gt in 2000 to 49.7 Gt in 2019, by 39%.[6]

Supporting data for fossil fuels and CO2 in particular:

  • In the U.S. in 2021, 33% of fossil fuel use was for transportation.[7]
  • CO2 savings achieved between 2000 and 2020 by the U.S. were erased by the rapid industrialization and to some extent population growth in China and India, per File:Worldwide CO2 Emissions.svg. This may in part be caused by a shift of manufacturing of U.S.-consumed goods to China.

A similar question:

  • Can battery electric vehicles significantly help humanity reduce greenhouse gas emissions?


Electric cars can significantly help humanity get off fossil fuels edit

Pro edit

  •   Argument for Electric cars move the electricity production from the car to a different location. That opens up the possibility to use a range of methods of energy production, whether solar, wind, hydrological (dams), geothermal, etc. Without electric cars, personal mobility is bound to fossil fuels.
    •   Objection See arguments against. The quantities and proportions matter.

Con edit

  •   Argument against The parts of mobility and transportation that can be made electric are only a portion, less than 30% in the U.S. and about 16% globally, of the GHG emission, driven largely by fossil fuel consumption. Furthermore, electric car does not reduce the fossil fuel use to zero but only to a fraction such as 70% or 30% when we take the fossil fuels needed for material mining and car manufacture into account together with the portion of electricity generated by fossil fuels. The problem of generating electricity without fossil fuels in the required volume that is yet to be increased is hard, and solar and wind do not perform uniformly over time and need energy storage solutions. If we assume that we make 30% of all fossil fuel use electric with the use of electric cars, and if we assume that the total lifetime fossil fuel footprint of an electric car is 30% of a traditional car (much worse in some countries), we get saving of 21% from the total fossil fuel use. That is not insignificant, but also not very significant, and is easily erased by population growth and continuing industrialization of low- and mid-income countries, which would be a continuation of past trends in China, India, and Iran. The parts of transportation that cannot easily move to electric include huge container ships crossing the oceans and commercial passenger airplanes. Parts of industry not affected by mobility include metalworking and other industrial manufacturing processes. Given that, globally, transportation sector made 16.2% of GHG emission in 2020, the significance is even lower, and asuming 30% electric car GHG footprint versus traditional car, we get 11.8% saving of GHG. (Fossil fuel numbers would be better, but in the end, we are interested in GHG emissions.) The biggest GHG emitter is China (30%), but its transportation sector makes only 8% of that, and thus, electric cars will make even less difference in the biggest emitter.

References edit

Further reading edit



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