Beware The Misinterpreted Study: How Electric Cars Are Yet Again Being Miscast as Heavy Polluters

It’s a trope we’ve heard many times before and we’ll probably hear it many times again in the future: the headline-grabbing proclamation that electric cars are worse for the environment than gasoline cars.

Electric cars: cleaner or dirtier, depending on the fuel you use to generate the electricity.

Electric cars: cleaner or dirtier, depending on the fuel you use to generate the electricity.

This time, the claim comes courtesy of a new study from a team of researchers at the University of Minnesota, which states in its opening paragraph that cars powered by corn-based ethanol, coal-based or ‘grid average’ electricity actually “increases monetized environmental health impacts by 80% or more relative to using conventional gasoline.”

Published yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, the study and its abstract have already lead many headlines claiming that “Your all-electric car may not be so green” among other things.

But while the headlines have focused on the first paragraph of the study, most have failed to look deeper into the paper, which clearly states that when electric cars are powered by low-emitting electricity from natural gas, wind, water or solar power, environmental health impacts are reduced by 50 percent or more.

In addition to being a fact completely ignored by most outlets covering this story, it serves as the following timely reminder to anyone looking at scientific study in the form of a short-form article: it’s almost impossible to accurately distil the essence of an entire scientific study into a few short sound bites.

The study, Life Cycle Air Quality Impacts of Conventional and Alternative Light-Duty Transportation in the United States, uses what it calls a ‘spatially and temporally explicit life cycle inventory model’ to estimate the total fuel supply chain air pollutant emissions for 10 percent of all total predicted U.S. mileage for the year 2020, repeating the model for eleven different fuel generation methods.

These include conventional gasoline vehicles, gasoline hybrids, diesel vehicles, compressed natural gas, corn-based ethanol, and electric vehicles. For scenarios where the fuel can be generated in different ways — as in the case of electricity, for example — the study examines each separate generation method.

It then tallies the total environmental and social effect of each fuel type, examining particulate emissions, greenhouse gas emissions, air quality, climate change, and even the financial cost to society due to changed health care costs.

It really does depend where you get your fuel from. (Image: Life cycle air quality impacts of conventional and alternative light-duty transportation in the United States.)

It really does depend where you get your fuel from. (Image: Life cycle air quality impacts of conventional and
alternative light-duty transportation in the
United States.)

It concluded that by making 10 percent of the U.S’s predicted 2020 fleet mileage operate on coal-based electricity, the impact of that on society due to poor air quality, reduced health and increased greenhouse gas emissions will be far worse than continuing to use gasoline, resulting in more than 3,000 deaths per year from reduced air quality alone.

Even at using current grid power mixes, the study says that electric cars are worse than gasoline vehicles and on par with corn grain ethanol vehicles in terms of overall emissions and health problems.

Yet the study also points out that electric cars aren’t the big bad wolf of the automotive world. The way in which the electricity they use is generated is. Run electric cars from wind, water, or solar-generated electricity (WWS), and there’s a dramatic improvement in health and social benefits all round.

“The difference between the least- and most-polluting electricity generation options for EVs increases almost sixfold when air pollution damages are considered alongside climate impacts, instead of when climate impacts are considered alone,” the report’s authors conclude. “Our findings thus reinforce the benefit of pairing EVs with clean electricity.”

It's all about the net effect

It’s all about the net effect.

Despite the headlines claiming that electric cars could be worse for the environment than gasoline cars, the reports authors finish their discussion by stating that the study isn’t designed to pick winners or losers in the alternative fuel market, but rather should be used as a study of how things could be shifted to increase or reduce pollution based on our choices.

“Results given here should not be taken as a final statement that environmental improvements are best achieved by existing light-duty vehicles with less-polluting light-duty vehicles, nor that EVs are the best technology for every need,” they state. “Instead, these results can be seen as an indication of how light-duty transportation fuels could shift to reduce increase pollution, and as an encouragement into the research of less polluting, more sustainable transportation options for the future.”

As for the purpose of our article? We’re not picking sides either — but we do implore our readers to note one very important fact.

When making academic papers and studies palatable for the masses, important facts are nearly always left by the wayside. Only by reading the paper yourself will you gain the full picture, because every outlet — even this one — will add some form of spin, even if we try hard not to.

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