How In Spite Of Cool Advertising, Electric And Hybrid Cars (Also) Damage The Environment

By Hema Vaishnavi

A BMW i-3 electrical car is refuelled at a power station for e-cars in the city centre of the western German city of Koblenz, March 1, 2016.         REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay  - RTS943D
Image source: REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay

Going green is the new fad now, and electric cars have taken the fancy of most people around the world, including the likes of Barack Obama and even Leonardo DiCaprio taking efforts to promote them.

So what’s all the hullabaloo about these so-called green cars that even the Indian government has decided to exempt them from the special cesses that it levied on all the other conventional vehicles?

The electric vehicles, dubbed as the green cars, are 100% eco-friendly and they do not emit toxic gases or smoke in the environment as it runs on electricity. And hybrid vehicles, which run on gas, do produce emissions, which are again very minimal compared to the conventional vehicles.

In the Union Budget, announced by Arun Jaitley, the government has decided to exempt the new-age cesses on electrically operated vehicles, hybrid vehicles, hydrogen vehicles based on fuel cell technology and motor vehicles.

The announcement from Jaitley comes with a statement saying that the pollution and traffic situation in Indian cities is a matter of concern, which has brought him to levy an infrastructure cess on petrol, diesel, LPG and CNG cars, which stems from the hope that people would eventually make the shift from the conventional vehicles.

But are these green cars really green? Let’s debunk the myth. The green cars do not pollute the areas that they are being used in because all they are doing is move the pollution from the point of movement to the source of electricity.

A lot of studies point out that electric cars are merely coal-powered vehicles, since most of the electricity is generated by coal.

Following this line of thought, let’s have a look at the power generation statistics in India. According to a report by the Energy Information Administration, as of May 2014, India generates most of its power, as much as 59%, from coal-fired power plants and another 10% from natural gas and diesel. Suffice to say that about 70% of the power generation in India is responsible for polluting the air around the power plants, which are heavily clustered in and around Maharashtra and Gujarat.

Now, moving on to the life cycle analysis of an electric car, the manufacturing process isn’t nearly as clearly as clean as the conventional cars. A study conducted by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology study found that these manufacturing units emitted more toxic waste than conventional car factories.

According to another report published by the team in the Journal of Industrial Ecology, which did a life cycle impact of the electric and conventional vehicles, the global warming potential from electric vehicle production is about twice than that of conventional vehicles.

The report also found that the production of batteries to run the electric cars, require a lot of toxic minerals, such as lithium, copper, nickel and aluminum, which directly translates to a much higher acidification impact on the environment.

In fact, a report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Design for the Environment program, concluded that the use of these mineral-based batteries gave rise to more negative environmental impacts, like mining, global warming, environmental pollution and human health impacts.

The study also found that the electric vehicle is responsible for about 30,000 pounds of carbon-dioxide emission, even before it hits the road, whereas the conventional car is responsible for 14,000 pounds.

Add to this already over-burdened carbon footprint, the source of electricity, which further increases the carbon footprint far behind, leaving the carbon footprint numbers of the conventional cars far behind.

Does this mean that electric cars need to be dismissed to altogether? No, not at all. There are places where they work wonderfully, places that derive most of their electricity from cleaner sources of energy.

For instance, take a look at the figures below. India, which has the highest number of coal-fired power plants is not a great place for electric or hybrid vehicles. While on the other hand, we have countries like Paraguay, which mostly run on hydroelectric power plants offer a better place to run electric cars.

electric cars graph

Getting back to the topic at hand, the exemption of cess that stems from the line of thought that this would lead to better environmental consequences is an illusion. The tax exemption is nothing but a popularity move that is a far cry from the much-needed solutions to address environmental concerns. The tax exemption also looks like an excellent PR for players who are keen to get into the market and the government hasn’t been subtle enough since it pretty much looks like it is appeasing the only big player in the market, Mahindra.

It is high time the government put some serious thought into its environment policies. Irrespective of which party is ruling, serious decisions need to be made as the government is responsible for millions of lives, and these kinds of half-baked solutions are definitely not the way to secure the future of the nation.

The need of the hour is for the government to start consulting different experts and getting research teams in place so that before anything, they are at least scientifically informed before acting on policies.

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