The German government aims at a 40 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 compared to 1994. By then, there are to be one million electric cars on German roads according to the government's plans. With less than four years to go, there are only 50,000 electric cars registered in Germany. And they are barely having any impact on the country's greenhouse gas emissions.
Electric vehicles seem to have a lot of advantages over cars that run on gasoline or diesel. They do not emit climate-damaging CO2 or health-harming nitrogen oxide. They do not make any noise, and they are very easy to operate.
However, under present conditions, the overall carbon footprint of a battery-powered car "is similar to that of a conventional car with a combustion engine, regardless of its size". That is the outcome of a 2011 study by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IFEU) in Heidelberg. While less emissions are produced by the cars themselves while driving on the streets, more CO2 is being emitted by power plants to charge the electric cars. More than half of Germany's electricity is generated from coal and gas. By the year 2035, Germany wants 55 to 60 percent of its electricity to come from wind and solar power as well as biomass.
Regardless of their high indirect CO2 emissions, e-cars are defined as zero emission vehicles. This has far-reaching consequences: The EU's new CO2 limits only need to be met on an average that takes account of all the different cars a manufacturer produces. By building "zero emission" vehicles, car-makers are can also continue to sell gas guzzlers like SUVs that exceed the limits.
From the production point of view, electric vehicles are not very eco-friendly either. According to a study by the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics, it takes more than twice as much energy to produce an electric car as a conventional one. The main reason for that is the battery. The IFEU estimates that each kilowatt hour of battery capacity involves 125 kilograms of CO2 emissions. For a 22 kWh battery for a BMW i3, this means almost three tons of CO2. Copper, cobalt, neodymium: Metals and rare earths like these are among the most important components of the battery. Mining activities in countries like China or the Democratic Republic of Congo often cause vast ecological devastation: deforestation, polluted rivers, contaminated soil.
In addition, many automakers use aluminum to build the bodies of the e-cars. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to process bauxite ore into light metal. The German Environmental Forecasting Institute (UPI) warns that more electric cars could cause more traffic in general. For example, Norway is the leading country regarding e-mobility. However, while the sales of electric cars went up, the use of public transport to get to work dropped by 80 percent. Greenpeace advocates electrifying public transport instead of awarding subsidies to those buying electric cars. "10,000 electric buses have as much impact as one million electric cars", the German newspaper "Die Welt" cites Daniel Moser from Greenpeace Germany. However, the German government and the country's car industry still seem to be going for private transport as they offer buyers up to 4,000 Euros to buy an electric car as part of a scheme to subsidize electromobility.