House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced Tuesday a 500-page plan that would, among other things, ban traditional vehicles from U.S. roads by requiring that 100% of vehicles be “zero-emission vehicles” by 2035.
This policy proposal is the continuation of a decades-old effort by some in Congress to promote one vehicle type – electric vehicles (EVs) – over all others. But are EVs really zero-emission? And is promoting EVs the most cost-effective way to reduce emissions?
All Vehicles Produce Emissions
First, let’s start with the basics: all vehicles produce emissions. Traditional vehicles equipped with internal combustion engines (ICEVs) generate emissions during manufacturing and, subsequently, during their operation.
But just because full battery EVs do not have internal combustion engines does not mean they also do not produce emissions. In fact, battery production for fully electric vehicles requires a tremendous amount of energy and comprises a significant source of lifecycle emissions for EVs.
EVs also produce emissions during their operating lifetimes. The electricity produced to charge EV batteries is a source of emissions at power plants. The quantity of emissions depends on the mix of fuels and technologies in use by the facilities generating power to the electric grid that services the electric vehicle recharging stations.
So while EVs are frequently referred to as “zero-emission vehicles,” that name is a misnomer. “Zero emission” vehicles do not exist.
Comparing EVs and ICEVs
Traditional vehicles are playing a key role in reducing emissions. Data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) released in May 2020 show that transportation-related emissions of carbon dioxide declined from 2018 to 2019. This was driven by reductions in gasoline-related emissions (-0.7%) and diesel fuel-related emissions (-1.1%), even though U.S. vehicle travel increased from 2018 to 2019 as improvements in the overall efficiency of the vehicle fleet likely outpaced a year-over-year 0.9% increase in highway travel. Today, a typical new passenger vehicle will go nearly two times farther (on average) on a single gallon of gas than one did in 1975, and will do so with 78% more horsepower.
Studies that analyze emissions generated during both the production and operation phases of a vehicle’s lifecycle show that traditional vehicles using gasoline are responsible for about the same or lower levels of carbon dioxide emissions than EVs, while other analyses give a slight advantage to EVs. In particular, hybrid vehicles – those that use both a small internal combustion engine and battery propulsion systems – often match or outperform all other vehicle types when it comes to lifecycle emissions based on today’s electric grid.
Given that EVs cost more to produce than traditional vehicles and are not the clear leader when it comes to emissions reductions, EVs are generally not an economical way to achieve environmental goals. There are more cost-effective ways for the federal government to promote cleaner transportation than through mandatory electrification schemes and expensive purchasing subsidies.
Policies promoting only one vehicle type, like Speaker Pelosi’s proposal to ban traditional vehicles by 2035, miss the full picture and fail to acknowledge the significant progress that continues to be made across all vehicle platforms, including those with internal combustion engines — the vehicles preferred by more than 95% of U.S. consumers.
Our leaders should recognize this preference and acknowledge that mandating EVs is not the most efficient or consumer-oriented means of reducing emissions. Both government regulations and consumer demand for better fuel economy helped drive down lifecycle emissions over the past half century, and these dual factors will continue that progress in the years ahead.