Shift to Electric Vehicles May Not Help in Climate Fight

Published December 23, 2015

The Dutch city of Rotterdam provides a dirty, example of the persistent fact the switch to electric vehicles to reduce carbon dioxide emissions is more of a shell game, simply shifting the source of emissions rather than actually reducing them, than a solution to rising greenhouse gas emissions.

Thanks to generous tax subsidies and gasoline prices of nearly $7 a gallon, in part due to high gas taxes, the share of electric vehicles has grown faster in the Netherlands than in nearly any other country resulting in it being second only to Norway in terms of percentage of electric vehicles on the road. Four percent of all cars sold in the Netherlands last year were electric. 

While policy makers in the Netherlands and other countries around the globe have embraced electric cars as a way helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as electric vehicle demand grows, so also does demand for the electricity needed to charge them, presenting a problem. Much of the electricity needed to charge electric vehicles is coming from inexpensive, abundant, reliable coal power. Three new coal-fired power plants, including two on the Rotterdam harbor, are supplying much of the power to fuel the Netherlands’ electric-car boom.

A single charge of an electric vehicle can consume as much electricity as the average refrigerator does in a month and a half. As a result, in countries like China, India and even the Netherlands, which is on track to miss its ambitious carbon dioxide emissions targets set for 2020, the increase in electric cars, while reducing emissions at the tail pipe, is increasing them at the smoke stack. 

Possible Increase in Emissions

Depending upon the make-up of the electric power supply, increasing the number and percentage of electric cars as a proportion of a country’s or state’s vehicle fleet could produce a net increase in carbon dioxide emissions, experts say. 

Luc Werring, the former principal adviser to the European Commission on energy issues told the Washington Post, “The overall emissions of electricity generation in Europe still haven’t gone down.” 

“If you drive your car on mixed electricity, then you’re not reducing carbon as much as you’d expect,” says Werring. 

Coal Still King

The Post notes, in many ways, the Netherlands could be an ideal home for electric cars: The country is small and densely populated, yet to power surging demand for electricity driven, in part, by the country’s embrace of electric cars, it has built three new coal fired power plants, two in Rotterdam alone. The Dutch chose coal, despite its carbon dioxide emissions, for the same reason there are currently 500 coal fired power plants under construction around the world: coal is cheap, plentiful, easy to transport, easy to get, and provides a reliable, non-variable source of power. 

Rotterdam’s grid operator says household electricity demand will rise as the vehicles spread by 50 percent by 2023 with coal providing 29 percent of the country’s electricity in 2014 and exceeding that in 2015. The Dutch government estimates coal will still provide approximately the same amount of electricity in 2030 as it did in 2014. 

What’s true in the Netherlands is also true in China. China’s leaders have also embraced electric cars as a way of cleaning up its cities with among the worst air pollution in the world. However, as China is heavily dependent on coal for electric power, air pollution is simply being shifted from the centers of cities and to their outskirts.

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D., ([email protected]) is the managing editor of Environment & Climate News.