To Help Electric Cars Clean Up Our Air, World Leaders Need To Clean the Grid, Study Warns

When it comes to climate change, there are some simple facts that we can’t ignore. Firstly, climate change is real and causing some pretty weird weather all around the world. Secondly, it’s caused — or at least exacerbated — by the large amount of carbon dioxide society is producing through the burning of fossil fuels. Finally, if we want to reverse, halt, or just slow the effects of climate change, we need to find cleaner, greener ways of moving around and powering our homes and businesses.

Electric cars are great for the environment, but some countries need to green their grid to cut global warming

Electric cars are great for the environment, but some countries need to green their grid to halt global warming

Electric cars, most experts agree, are at least one way to help us achieve that, since powering electric cars from even the dirtiest of electricity grids in most countries produces less carbon emissions that mining, refining, transporting and consuming gasoline. Charge electric cars from renewable sources such as wind or solar power as many early-adopting, environmentally-conscious electric car owners already do, and they’re the cleanest form of high-speed personal transport currently available.

Now a study from the University of Toronto says that while those who opt to charge their cars using renewable sources are a great start, drastic and urgent work is needed to green up the entire electrical grid if electric cars are to really make an impact on worldwide carbon emissions.

Published in the March edition of Nature Climate Change, the study — authored by University of Toronto Civil Engineering Professor Christopher Kennedy — argues that countries around the world need to reduce the carbon intensity of their respective power grids in order to make electric cars the smart choice moving forward.

Push electric car sales in countries where the electricity grid is mainly powered by burning fossil fuels, and overall emissions will go up, he warns.

According to the study, nations around the world need to cut the carbon intensity — a measurement that plots emissions versus energy produced — of their electrical grids below 600 tons of CO2 per gigawatt-hour of electricity generated by 2020 in order to meet the goal of ensuring global temperatures do not raise more than 2 degrees Celsius as set out in the Copenhagen Accord of 2009. Beyond that point, nations will need to reduce their electrical grid’s carbon footprint by more than 90 percent before 2050 to prevent further warming.

Some countries are already below the 600 tons of CO2 per GWh target.

Some countries are already below the 600 tons of CO2 per GWh target.

By 2011, Kennedy reports, Brazil, Canada, the Russian Federation, the UK, Mexico, and Germany all fell below the carbon intensity goal needed to meet that 2020 target.

Taking into consideration all of the member states of the EU, average European emissions per Gigawatt hour fall well below the threshold, but it’s important to note they vary dramatically from member state to member state.

The U.S, Japan, South Korea and Iran fell into a zone Kennedy calls the ‘transition zone,’ where emissions are either slightly above or slightly below the 600-ton CO2 per GWh threshold.

So far, so good. Ignoring the EU — which isn’t a country — ten of the fifteen countries studied by Kennedy already have a carbon intensity below the 2020 target. But five of the countries studied — Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, China, Australia and India — have carbon intensities far beyond the 600 tons CO2/GWh laid out in the Copenhagen Accord.

Unless those countries take drastic and urgent action to green their power grids, owning a plug-in car will have little or no effect on climate change, Kennedy warns.

More renewable energy sources -- such as wind, solar and wave -- are needed.

More renewable energy sources — such as wind, solar and wave — are needed.

Of course, not all of the world’s nations are included in the study. Iceland, for example, would fare better than Brazil thanks to its almost 100 percent reliance on geothermal energy to produce its electrical power. It’s also worth noting that the study appears to assume that existing fleets be replaced with electric-powered ones, and doesn’t take into effect the change in trends in some countries away from personal car ownership.

The challenge then, is not just for governments around the world to encourage more of their citizens to make the switch to an electric vehicle, but for them to work hard to ensure that the grids that power those cars continue to get cleaner, and greener too.

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