Electric Cars In Developing Nations Could Do More Harm Than Good

While electric cars seem to provide a host of environmental benefits, the reality is that their use in some countries could actually increase greenhouse gas emissions

As Tesla gets set to roll out the remarkably affordable Model 3 for the global market, and self-driving cars have come closer and closer to becoming a reality, the paradigm shift towards electric cars is becoming a global phenomenon. Long-standing automakers, such as Volvo, are beginning to wean their product lines off of fossil fuels in favour of electricity. The environmental benefits of emissions-free electric vehicles have made this transition inevitable. But are they universal?

The extraction of oil sands in Alberta, Canada.
The extraction of oil sands in Alberta, Canada.

The most obvious benefit of electric cars is that they don’t burn fossil fuels. This obviously eliminates tailpipe emissions, but it also eliminates the huge amounts of greenhouse gases produced during the extraction, transportation, and refining of crude oil into petrol or diesel. The mining of lithium for EV batteries can also be a dirty process, but the net environmental impact can offset that of petroleum-propelled vehicles over the vehicle’s lifespan.

There is one caveat that must be applied, however. The energy required to charge the batteries has to come from somewhere, too. While wind and solar energy are advancing at a historical pace, they currently account for a fraction of the world’s energy production. What’s more, the power grids of some of the world’s most populated countries depend on some of the dirtiest methods of electricity generation.

A coal-fired power plant in China.
A coal-fired power plant in China.

The world’s two largest countries, China and India, depend mostly on coal-fired power plants to provide electricity to over two billion people. These plants are very dirty, producing flue gases that are major contributors to anthropogenic climate change. Hydroelectricity is a major source of renewable electricity, but hydro projects can have serious negative effects on their surrounding environment. This ultimately leaves solar energy and wind energy as the two sources of energy that give EVs the best chance of mitigating environmental damage.

In order for wind and solar to satisfy the demand for clean electricity, however, many of the world’s countries will have to make some serious upgrades to their national power grids. This would require monumental investments in infrastructure; especially in countries such as India, where the power grid is barely sufficient as it is.

It would be one issue if all that was needed was to replace the existing electrical system. But that’s just a start. If EVs are truly going to be driven by the population at large, the demand for electricity is going to increase by a massive amount. This could mean that these countries might have to keep the dirty plants running to keep up with the system load. In fact, a reasonable scenario is that these countries would have to increase their reliance on coal and gas-fired power plants just to accommodate the transportation network.

Electric Cars In Developing Nations Could Do More Harm Than Good

This isn’t to suggest that we shouldn’t be driving electric cars. In Norway, 98% of all electricity is produced by renewable sources (hydro, wind, solar, etc.). This means that replacing the internal combustion engine with electric engines could reduce Norway’s greenhouse gas emissions significantly. To me, that sounds like a good idea.

But if you’re really concerned about saving the planet, you’ve got to consider the logistics of the area’s power system before you can say whether or not EVs will actually provide benefits. Despite the best of intentions, lawmakers and environmentalists must come to terms with the fact that EVs are not going to be the be-all, end-all solution to automotive emissions.


Dat Incredible Chadkake


07/07/2017 - 14:06 |
20 | 0
Dat Incredible Chadkake

and i agree, if your electric car gets it’s electricity from a coal powered plant, your car basically runs on fossil fuels

07/07/2017 - 14:09 |
130 | 10

it would still be more efficient than a normal ICE

07/07/2017 - 14:29 |
12 | 10

I’ve been trying to say that for years…

07/07/2017 - 15:41 |
2 | 2

Most of Canada runs on hydro

07/07/2017 - 16:33 |
8 | 0

ITS* electricity, not IT’S electricity.

07/08/2017 - 07:55 |
0 | 0

More efficently than putting it directly in the engine though. But the biggest problem is not where the electricity comes from, it’s manufacturing the batteries. You can drive a good old fashioned car with a combustion engine for a long time before it has reached the emission levels of just producing a battery for an EV.

07/10/2017 - 09:14 |
2 | 0

They leave a huge carbon footprint before they even leave the factory. And that’s what they’re trying to reduce lol. So the companies are just trying to cash in on the craze. Like fidget spinners lel.

07/07/2017 - 14:17 |
42 | 2

The all-new BMW 2-series Active Spinner

07/07/2017 - 14:19 |
30 | 0
Tomislav Celić

Your forgetting a huuge thing. Batterie technology will change. ICE never will.

07/07/2017 - 14:18 |
6 | 4

I been hearing that we are 5 years away from super efficient , extremely durable, super fast charging batteries for the past 20 years or so (and my older acquaintances tell me it’s been even longer). And yet even the Tesla supercharger still takes about an hour, takes under 5 minutes to fill a 20gallon (US) tank in my Xterra…

07/07/2017 - 14:45 |
6 | 0

Both will change. Freevalve, HCCI, more E85-powered engines.

07/07/2017 - 15:54 |
2 | 0

ICE never will? You’re forgetting Koenigsegg’s Free Valve, Mercedes electric motor driven cams and crank in the new S Class, Porsche’s and Infiniti’s variable compression engine, Mazda’s HCCI engine and that British firm that’s making actuator operated cams… I don’t think ICE technology isn’t changing, in fact it IS changing… heck everything develops in one or another way but takes time to happen.

07/07/2017 - 15:57 |
14 | 0

“You don’t solve the problem of conspicuous consumption by using conspicuous consumption”.- Jeremy Clarkson

07/07/2017 - 14:20 |
14 | 0
Michael Masin

I agree. Coal powered electric cars offer little environmental benefit over ICE cars besides shifting emissions to less populated areas. If the power plant is old and ineficient, or runs on brown coal, EVs are worse than ICEs.

07/07/2017 - 14:36 |
10 | 2

Factor in the transport, extraction, and refining of gas. Also the Benifits to local pollution in crowded cities.

07/07/2017 - 22:02 |
0 | 0

There are nuclear power plants… Solar… Wind…

07/08/2017 - 03:33 |
0 | 2

You neglected to mention that solar and wind are extremely fickle and require some sort of storage in order to properly deal with differences in demand vs production.

There is also the fact that unless you have your own spot where a charger can be installed EV is basically a non-starter.

07/07/2017 - 14:48 |
6 | 0

In reply to by prizrak

There’s still hydro, tidal (not constant energy but at least it’s regular and dependable) and nuclear (not really renewable but doesn’t emit CO2. And there are ways to store energy such as pumped storage plants (basically the energy is stored as gravitational potential energy by pumping a large amount of water upwards).

07/07/2017 - 15:56 |
4 | 0

What you got to remember is that Norway is a nation that exports electricity to countries that uses coal power etc, so if more people get electric cars in Norway, less electricity gets exported. Anyway, it’s hard for us petrolheads in Norway these days, because our sosialist idiot state forces us to buy EV’s because ICE cars are being taxed so freaking high, and EV’s are exempt from nearly all car related taxes.

07/07/2017 - 14:56 |
2 | 0
Deadpool (Cam's much sexier twin) (Official Demon Fangirl)

The way that mainstream electric vehicles will get their power supply and maintain a similar level of convenience to gasoline will be a very interesting topic as well, I’ve wondered if we would switch to using standardized batteries which can be switched out at devoted battery stations to recharge the car immediately. That does open up the possible issue of huge batteries being ejected in crashes and electrifying the area around them. Side note: where do you find your stock photos without watermarks? That is super useful.

07/07/2017 - 15:00 |
10 | 0

Internal Combustion is the way forward imo.

07/07/2017 - 15:11 |
2 | 0

How about external combustion?

07/07/2017 - 15:19 |
0 | 0


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