March 2011

Both the US and China have pledged to put 1 million electric vehicles on the road in the next decade (see here and here). But are electric vehicles really better for the environment?

There is a common misconception that electric vehicles are carbon-neutral and that their impact on the environment is as non-offensive as the quiet sound of their humming engines.

But electricity doesn’t come from nowhere. To have a live outlet, tons of dirty coal (or sometimes natural gas or uranium) must be consumed at a power plant, generating electricity which then must be stored and transported to a building or charging station. This process is in and of itself a carbon intensive one. In the United States and China, the vast majority of the nation’s electricity is generated by coal, which, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has a much higher global warming potential than conventional vehicle fuels like diesel or gasoline.

So when we promote electric cars are we just shifting the emissions from the tail pipe to the power plant?

In the last three months, I have worked with my colleagues in China at the Innovation Center for Energy and Transportation on a report commissioned by the United Nations on the life-cycle carbon impact of electric vehicles.

What we found may surprise many.

We found that pure battery electric vehicles may not always improve environmental impact of transport as much as we would like to expect; in fact, in some regions, electric vehicles are not an environmentally friendlier technology, particularly in terms of GHG emissions, because of the source of electricity which powers them.

Except for one region in China, compared with conventional vehicles, electric vehicles do not significantly reduce emissions – from a lifecycle point of view. After all, electric vehicles are an energy conversion and not a clean energy technology.

In order to generate data that reflects the lifecycle GHG emissions we look at the environmental impacts of a sequence of events in the fuel or battery’s life. For electric vehicles, we look at the emissions associated with the entire life of the battery from the mining of raw materials such as lithium, to the transportation and storage of energy to the disposal of waste material associated with the battery pack. This is what we call “Mine-to-Pack” emissions. For a conventional vehicle, we measure the emissions generated during the fuel’s life cycle, from the oil well to the tank, or “Well-to-Tank” emissions.

This analysis points to a clear implication for policy: Electric grids must be made more efficient or be more reliant on renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar.  This means replacing coal plants with renewable energy on a large scale, producing what many call a “smart grid.” If renewables aren’t commercially viable, then we need to install new technology to burn coal more cleanly or capture the emissions that come from coal. In the US and China (the world’s biggest coal-consuming countries) these are existing areas for government-led research and development.  But there is still a long way to go before so-called clean coal or renewable energy can be economically feasible in order to remake the electricity grids in either country to something we can call “smart.” Our report for the UN adds evidence to an existing pile that electricity grid reform should be priorities for both Washington and Beijing.

Last week John McCain, in a joint appearance with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, said that the US and Australia should work together to rein in China. “They have been acting very assertively in the region,” he said. “The fact is they are a rising power and they are a military power.”

“Now that doesn’t mean to me that there is going to be conflict,” he said, “ . . . but it does mean that Australia and the United States must ensure that basics like freedom of the seas are observed by the Chinese.”

McCain’s comments are eerily reminiscent of two bygone eras, in which there was talk of reining in China. The first is the era of post World War II anti-communism hysteria that mostly targeted the USSR ultimately culminating in the Cold War, but which was also pointed at China and lasted from the 1950s until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989. The origins of the anti-China piece of this broad arc of history are laid out in mesmerizing detail in a chilling 1974 book written by an Australian Franz Schurmann called, “The Logic of World Power: An Inquiry into the Origins, Currents, and Contradictions of World Politics.” In it he traces the rise of the Taiwan Lobby – a  motley group of politicians, legislative aides, intelligence workers, academics and journalists, who cohere around a shared belief that China is a confrontational dictatorship whose economic prosperity and rise in power place it on a hostile collision course with the United States, and that ensuring the survival of pro-West Taiwan is crucial to US ideological dominance vis a vis Soviet communism. They were hostile toward both democrats and republicans, blaming them for being too soft on communist China and for “losing Beijing.” The book also follows the plight of the US Navy, which after becoming marginalized by the introduction of the nuclear bomb in the 1940s, (which of course fell into the domain of the Air Force), was a institution skirting degeneration, searching for a new modus operendi. Together the Taiwan Lobby and the Navy joined forces and while US diplomats averted nuclear war by masterminding a restrained policy of  “containment” against communist expansion, the Taiwan Lobby powered by the Navy pursued far less accommodating policies through covert operations aimed at rolling back communism in Asia. It’s a long story (and a great read) and by the end readers won’t be surprised by China’s unyielding righteousness after in 2001 a Navy spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet over Hainan island in southern China. (One might ask: What was a Navy spy plane doing in southern China in the first place?)

The second era is more recent — George W. Bush’s era when “regime change” was the dominant trend in US foreign policy. The right flank of the right wing was particularly cantankerous about China and the old rhetoric of the Taiwan Lobby, silenced by the fall of the Soviet Union, resurfaced. Shortly after Bush visited Beijing in Spring of 2002 (I was there), Robert Kagan and William Kristol published an article in the Weekly Standard which stated that the “Bush Doctrine [as defined by the ‘axis of evil’] could help undo dictatorships not only in Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, but also in, for example, China.” “George W. Bush is now a man with a mission,” they continued. “As it happens, it is America’s historic mission” [italics added].

Perhaps even in the era of dovish Obama, when words like “Regime Change” and “War on Terror” are out and “cooperation” “multilateralism” and “integrity” are in, an ideological spore from the past lives on in John McCain.

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