Electric vehicles are much hyped but bring their own problems when it comes to cutting carbon emissions, says Associate Professor Ralph Chapman.
One of the authors of a recent paper comparing the costs and emissions of electric and petrol-powered cars in Aotearoa New Zealand, Associate Professor Ralph Chapman, says a “blind, head-long rush to electric vehicles is pretty myopic”.
“We shouldn’t delude ourselves electric cars are good. They’re just not as problematic as what I call ‘fossil cars’.”
The study, published in Transportation Research Part D, was led by PhD graduate Dr Arif Hasan (now at the Ministry for the Environment), with the director of the University’s New Zealand Climate Change Research Institute, Professor Dave Frame, another co-author.
They were motivated by the fact that, despite New Zealand having an “old” light-vehicle fleet with an average age of 14.1 years in 2018, nobody had attempted to calculate the full per-kilometre cost of ownership (PCO) for various cars.
Their study investigated the PCOs of new and used light-duty electric vehicles (EVs) and petrol-powered cars (internal combustion-engined vehicle, or ICEVs) over 12 years. They also looked at the emissions reduction potential of EVs.
They found the cost of owning a used EV was the lowest, at an average of about 25.5 cents a kilometre, compared with 31.5 cents for a used petrol-powered car.
Also, they calculated that replacing a light petrol-powered ICEV with a light EV could reduce carbon emissions from use by 90 percent if New Zealand can maintain its low-emission grid electricity.
Associate Professor Chapman says EVs clearly need to be part of the solution.
“But, and it is difficult to get this across, even fully electric vehicles have a significant carbon footprint, because there is all that manufacturing, shipping of them around the world, recycling the battery—so, when you consider not just emissions from ‘use’ but all the emissions involved, switching from a fossil car to an EV saves only about 50 percent of your total emissions.
“So you can save 50 percent roughly, but you can’t save the other 50 percent—they are still a carbon-intensive beast, and way worse than electric buses or electric bikes, or even car-share.
“So a better solution lies out there and it is a mix of some EVs and getting a whole lot of people to see there is another way of living, around active travel, bikes, walking, and living more centrally, in apartments and townhouses.
“The ideal would include, if they want to get around a bit further, sharing an EV parked down the road in the EV car-share park.”
EV drivers shouldn’t get a “free pass” on motorways or toll roads, or have free registration or road-user charges, says Associate Professor Chapman.
“They should be paying all those fees, but much less than fossil cars, which ought to be heavily penalised.
“In terms of carbon emissions, you don’t really want to encourage people to buy electric vehicles. What you really want to do is discourage any sort of private motor vehicle, especially fossil vehicles.”
Associate Professor Chapman says there have been 70 years of unrelenting car domination and investment on behalf of the car.
“That whole culture around cars is very hard to change. It is shifting, but needs to shift radically.
“Wellington has pretty good public transport and an active transport policy. But even so it gets congested by a lack of dedicated bus lanes and all those people who take cars when they don’t need to.
“In Wellington, the councils have been dominated by the car lobby for too long and there hasn’t been heavy investment in things like bus lanes. Every time they try to take car parks away to put in a bus lane, they get huge pushback from residents, who somehow think they own the road.”
The Government’s proposed “fee-bate scheme” is a step in the right direction—“in the sense the penalty paid on a dirty car would cross-subsidise a clean car, so it’s fiscally neutral”.
“Big penalties on fossil cars would help push people towards public transport, active travel and shared vehicles, as well as EVs. Or to be more accurate, they would level up the playing field, to an extent, which has been tilted in favour of the private fossil car.
“Our study of the per-kilometre cost of ownership took a pretty conservative figure for the price of carbon, at $25 a tonne of carbon dioxide. That price has gone up to about $38 a tonne or so.
“That is better, but still pathetically unrealistic in terms of the damage a tonne of carbon dioxide causes. We’ve got to reduce emissions and also pull it out of the atmosphere really quickly and, if we don’t, we’ll get all these horrendous effects from climate change.
“Personally, I would say let’s start by getting the price on carbon up to $100 a tonne very soon and to $200 within a few years. That would alter your incentive structure totally – you would see a transformation of the nature of transport and cities at $200 a tonne.”
So is it easier on the environment to buy newer cars more frequently or stick with the old one?
“Best not to buy a car, and it is better to keep a car for a long time and run it into the ground. Remember, the manufacturing of cars is quite carbon intensive—all that steel and plastic, it all involves energy and emissions.