Opinion: There's No Such Thing As A Zero Emissions Vehicle

Opinion / 19 Comments

The emissions-free car is a myth.

In August 2022, the state of California successfully passed the Clean Cars II Act, effectively banning the sale of all internal combustion vehicles from 2035. While we believe a blanket ban is a silly way to win consumers over, that's not what we want to sulk about today. Nope, today's issue is zero-emissions vehicles, or #ZEV, if you want to sound cool on social media.

In the run-up to passing the new act, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) happily tweeted about #ZEV and #EV, but the actual wording of the act refers to tailpipe emissions-free vehicles. A tailpipe emissions-free vehicle and a zero-emissions vehicle are not the same, mostly because the latter does not exist.


Technically, the term tailpipe emissions-free is also wrong because an EV does not have an exhaust system, but we'll let it slide because the PHEVs that will still be eligible for sale do.

Tailpipe emissions-free vehicles come with many provisos. First and most importantly, it means the owner has to discount any emissions emitted during the manufacture of the car. Using this definition, emissions only start counting once an owner drives their new Tesla Model Y once it arrives at their doorstep. When you factor in the production process of a car, continuing to drive a classic car is less detrimental to the environment than buying a new EV.

Secondly, you have to ignore everything on the other side of the plug. California's electrical grid is friendlier than most, relying increasingly on solar, wind, and geothermal. The state wants to go 100% zero-carbon by 2045, a full decade later than its cars are supposedly going emissions-free.

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The uncomfortable truth is that the grid only ran on 100% renewable energy for one day last year. On 8 May 2022, the state produced enough renewable energy to satisfy 103% of the demand. It's an impressive feat, but it's an open secret that it can't rely entirely on solar power because the sun eventually sets. Then good old-fashioned natural gas has to fill the deficit unless you store an entire state's overnight energy in batteries, which will take a huge amount of real estate.

You can install your own solar system at home or invest in a tiny windmill, but an EV won't truly be emissions-free until our entire energy grid is. While many can turn their heads and look the other way, cars should be sold with a sticker that clearly states how much emissions it took to get them there.

This would include mining to get the minerals for the battery, transporting these cars globally, and the hot air salespeople spew trying to convince you that it's emissions-free. Just think about all the emissions from the 2,500 factory workers driving their vehicles to get to the plant to build a smug-mobile. Not to mention the tires.

2022-2023 Chevrolet Bolt EV Side View Chevrolet
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Now, it may sound like I'm an EV naysayer. In truth, your faithful correspondent is a bit of a so-called libtard. I'd happily run an EV, but Mini has yet to release an electric Cooper with decent range. I also like the Mustang Mach-E, and I believe the perfect two-car garage for a family of four is a Hyundai Ioniq 5 and a Porsche 911 GT3. You can love internal combustion and EVs. Both things can be true.

But allow me to explain my point with an example from my own life. I own three cars, only one of which is interesting. It's a '92 Miata that I use daily. I'm only one person, and the Miata is just fast enough to be fun without getting me into trouble with the law. It emits I-don't-even-care-slightly grams of CO2 per mile.

Before you accuse me of not caring about the environment, allow me to contrast my daily against the car my wife is currently considering.

2023 Toyota Prius Front View Driving Toyota

She's always been a fan of the Toyota Prius but could never own one until now. The previous generations were ruled out due to being styled by pencils created from wood harvested from the infamous Ugly Tree. She doesn't care about emissions and is only interested in the EV-only range, which covers her commute completely. There's no noble cause to be found. She doesn't want to visit another gas station ever again.

Even if she cared about emissions, my 31-year-old Miata is kinder to the environment. Every emission Mazda made digging stuff out of the ground to build it has long since been recycled by the multitude of guilt-induced trees I've planted over the years.

Now contrast that with a brand-new yet to exist Prius Prime or any EV for that matter.

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2023 Toyota Prius Forward View Toyota
Rear View Toyota

My Mazda already exists, but for your new EV to be built, a manufacturer has to do several nasty things to planet earth. Mining, shipping, and land-based transport are all filthy businesses, just a few of the many emissions-related activities related to a car.

Several studies show even with all of the above factored in, including recycling the battery (which is entirely possible, by the way), an EV is still greener. But the average lifecycle is always roughly eight to 10 years, and I'm not entirely convinced that's accurate. An ICE car's longevity is currently way above that of an EV due to the battery eventually dying out, and once the battery goes, an EV is effectively a write-off due to the high cost of replacement.

I'm all for going green, but can we please stop using the terms emissions-free and zero emissions? There's no such thing. It's a myth.


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