Friday, 18 March 2016

Are Electric Cars really green?

Author: Harley Nadler

One may question the efficacy of driving an electric car, for the purpose of reducing a carbon footprint, when accounting for the emissions of the car’s production as well as the emissions from the electricity used to power it. Indeed, until auto-makers begin to use less plastic in the car’s body and accessories, the production of the car itself leaves a lasting mark on the earth. Nevertheless, the production of electric cars is no worse for our environment than that of their non-electric predecessors. All things being equal, what really determines how green a car may be is what powers it.

To advertise a car as zero emissions may be fundamentally misleading; even if the emissions from production are ignored. A savvy consumer will ask where their electricity comes from before lamenting on how sustainable their vehicle may be. Unfortunately, this has more to do with geography than anything else. As outlined by, countries in which large proportions of electricity are generated by burning coal, or other fossil fuels, may consider their electric cars to create effectively the same amount of emissions as a gas-powered car. In other words, the same amount of carbon is burned; in one case the carbon is burned by the car while in the other case the carbon is burned at the coal plant.

In an ideal world, one could simply subscribe to a choice of electric companies offering whatever means of power-generation their customers prefer. However, the infrastructure for such a system simply does not exist at this time. As such, we are faced with two possibilities:

1)    Resign ourselves to the fact that we happen to live in a city where sustainable energy is not readily available and simply drive a traditional gas-car, or
2)    Reject the notion that we are a coal community and, instead, demand sustainable forms of power such as solar, wind, geothermal, etc.

Obviously, one of those options is more difficult and takes longer to invoke. However, with municipal governments across the globe taking the lead on sustainable action, the task is not as daunting as lobbying a federal government.

The very first step is educating yourself!! How does your power company generate electricity? If it happens to be a healthy mix of wind and nuclear, you can make a significant change to your carbon footprint by upgrading to an electric vehicle (you may even have some incentives from your government or power company available to you). However, if your power company is using mostly coal or natural gas, your greatest impact may be a letter to your mayor or city councilor. When issues of energy are decided at a state or provincial level, your city officials are a strong ally in a lobby for sustainable energy on the grid.

Harley Nadler is a 3rd year undergraduate student in the Faculty of Education at McGill University. He holds a Diplôme d'études collégiales (DEC) in Pure & Applied Sciences and is currently studying with the goal of teaching science at the high school level. Harley is a big believer in sustainability education as a means of affecting public policy.

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