EV owners need to keep cars for longer to make environmental impact

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Words: Matthew Hansen
31 May 2021

It’s no secret that the electric car revolution is surrounded with murky arguments for and against the next-gen tech. Electric cars clearly require some carbon emissions in their production and, depending on location, in where their power comes from.

But arguments often arise over whether this deficit is enough to achieve the carbon zero goals many countries have set out for 2050.

Simon Powell, an analyst with Jefferies Group (an American-based multinational LLC) has offered a straightforward take. In an interview with CNBC, he says that the environmental benefits of electric vehicles can only be felt if owners of these cars keep them for longer, and drive them further before selling them.

“To gain the environmental dividend that governments are looking for, users are going to have to keep [cars for] longer, drive them further than they may have done with a conventional internal combustion energy vehicle,” he said.

“When they leave the factory, these [electric vehicles] are at a disadvantage. They contain more steel. The brakes are bigger. The battery packs are certainly heavier.”

Powell adds that the legacy aspects of car production that linger in low-emission vehicles production (which he calls the “embedded carbon”) will eventually come down, and at that point buyers will be able to buy and sell EVs in the same way as they currently do internal combustion vehicles now.

“The way this whole thing gets solved is greener steel,” he said. “The use of hydrogen in the manufacturing process for steel, as well, is something to look at. [...] I think it’s going to take a long time. We’re talking about large investments with [...] long paybacks, long time horizons.”

It’s worth noting that Powell’s arguments came with very little in the way of hard data showing what impact there would be if people hung onto their low-emission cars for longer; either on the amount of carbon being produced or on the impact on sales and industry.

A 2017 study in the US by IHS Markit found that American vehicle owners were keeping their cars for, on average, around seven years before selling them. In our experience, those in the new-car market often swap from car to car once their factory warranty lapses.

On an extreme level, one could use Powell’s logic to argue that people should simply cease buying new cars altogether and instead focus on reusing and recycling existing fleets. Nevertheless, the message could be a slight wake-up call for some early adopters.


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