Driving off CO2:how increased use of electric vehicles could improve air quality and improve energy security

Thomas Sheltra examines China’s ongoing struggle with air pollution and looks at how increased use of electric vehicles could improve air quality and improve energy security.

Beijing recently announced that it would take major steps to curb pollution by as much as 25% for some provinces in China. While there is no silver bullet to tackle this problem, transportation is seen as a way in which China can decrease CO2 emissions and create efficient vehicles, as more Chinese start to become consumers and vehicles become more affordable. Transportation serves as China’s number one sector for oil consumption, and as China grows economically, cars have gone from being a luxury good, to something millions of Chinese want to own. China’s transportation fleets are expected to increase from 37 million vehicles today to 370 million by 2030. This article focuses on how China’s entrance in the electric vehicle (EV) market can enhance its energy security by decreasing oil imports, and the barriers associated with a transition from conventional vehicles to EVs. Most common among them being the myth that EVs are ‘dirtier’ because they use coal for charging.

China’s current EV policy includes implementing a 25 city, test pilot programme of electric vehicle fleets, and pledging a goal of 5 million electric vehicles and plug in hybrids by 2020. However, China is still woefully short of its target, with only 27 000 actually being sold. While China is progressing to greening its vehicle fleets, there are opportunities for improvement. Financial, technological and social barriers to EVs and their effectiveness still exist in China. Making gains in EV fleets must provide incentives for Chinese citizens in order for EVs make a dent in a growing vehicle consuming country.

To reduce barriers, and make EVs a reality, China will need to not only offer subsidies for electric vehicles, but also show citizens that the true costs of conventional gasoline vehicles are more expensive when calculating the total externalities. For example, in the United States, savings for consumers who purchase EVs (like the Nissan Leaf) could save US$ 1102 a year, compared to conventional vehicles. Compared to gasoline vehicles, EV’s are cheaper to fuel. With gasoline hovering near US$ 4/gal., EVs can cost as little as US$ 170 per year to charge. Calculating other maintenance costs add to the lifetime costs of a conventional vehicle that EVs do not require, making them cheaper in the long-term. An additional advantage to EVs (along with hybrid and hybrid plug-in vehicles) in the United States is the Federal tax credit of US$ 7500, and in some cases State incentives for consumers to purchase EVs. China runs into a few problems. First, their current range of subsidies only includes Chinese domestic EVs. Second, even with incentives, people are not purchasing them. Without appropriate incentives for EVs and subsequent disincentives for conventional vehicles, a push for EVs in China mirror the awful investments China has made in transnational oil pipelines.

Domestic EVs like China’s ‘Build Your Dream’ (BYD) have lower efficiency in battery capacity compared to Nissan or Tesla EV’s. Second, the basic infrastructure for charging stations in China does not exist, and in major cities like Shanghai, there is not enough of an infrastructure to support a sudden influx of EV fleets. Third, financial barriers exist where EVs are significantly more expensive than gas models. Even with subsidies, current transportation energy efficiency ranks lower than countries in the EU, the US and Japan. By transitioning to more EV fleets, China can take steps to reduce inefficient transportation, which consumes more oil per kilometer, and reduce overall oil consumption.

As China sees more vehicles on the road, pollution through tail pipe emissions continue to increase, and vehicles increasingly contribute to GHG emission totals. There is a direct link between the need for China’s oil consumption and the increased pollution from tailpipe emissions in China. A greater production of domestic EV fleets for both private and public transportation would serve as a great mechanism for China to: firstly, reduce its growing oil consumption and secondly, reduce the amount of pollution from GHG emissions, which will lessen environmental degradation. In 2007, China’s overall transportation sector was responsible for 8% of its CO2 emissions. Of that 8%, road transportation accounted for 58% of the total transport CO2 emissions. Recent data shows that the increase of China’s total CO2 emissions from transportation has been about 15% per year, and currently transportation accounts for 25% of total CO2 emissions in China. Based solely on electrification, China could reduce its consumption of oil by 2045 to 4 million bpd, and reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 800 million t. As China’s economy continues to grow, more cars will be on the road, and China’s transportation sector will continue to make an impact on total CO2 emissions for decades to come. However, electric vehicles can make a huge impact in lessening China’s dependence on oil for transportation, and reducing CO2 emissions.

Lastly, there is a myth that switching fleets from conventional to EVs will not reduce CO2 emissions due to the amount of coal used to charge batteries. However, as research suggests, electric vehicle fleets would use minimal amounts of coal to charge vehicles (based on peak demands to the grid), and that it would make a nominal difference overall. The overall benefits of reduced tail pipe emissions, would outweigh any potential increase in coal CO2 emissions. The claims of increased coal consumption for new generation from EV fleets are based on a two key assumptions:

Coal would be the only way to charge batteries.
Efficiencies in technologies like V2G (vehicle-to-grid), would not offset peak load challenges for an influx of EVs.
These are false for two reasons:

1. Renewable energy sources such as solar or wind can be used to offset coal usage, which would provide a cleaner way to charge EVs.

2. When plugged in, V2G can send power back into the grid, therefore offsetting any additional coal used for electricity during peak hours. This benefits consumers, power plants, utilities and ultimately everyone through a reduction in CO2 emissions.

If steps are not taken to reduce overall consumption of oil the transportation sector with a shift towards electric vehicles, urban areas of China will see more polluted days like the ones seen in Beijing, Harbin and Shanghai over the last few months. The pollution that comes from CO2 affects the environment, the health of Chinese citizens and decreases China’s energy security by placing more dependence on oil imports for a growing transportation sector.

The author can be reached via: thomassheltra@vermontlaw.edu

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Adapted by David Bizley