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Urban Air Pollution: Are Clean Cars (Electric, Natural Gas) the solution?

Air pollution in our cities has reached alarming levels. No major city is immune. From Mexico City to Beijing, New York, Sao Paolo or London, air pollution has become a top concern for authorities. Blacksmith Institute, the international non-profit organization dedicated to solving pollution problems, ranks air pollution as “one of the top ten world’s worst pollution problems” (Blacksmith report 2008 ). In the United States, Transportation is the single largest contributor to urban air pollution. As reported by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “on-road vehicles account for over a third of the carbon monoxide released into the atmosphere” (National Emissions Inventory (NEI) Air Pollutant Emissions Trends Data ), and “over 20% of global warming pollution” (National Greenhouse Gas Emissions Data )

Many pundits and commentators believe that clean cars (Electric, Natural Gas –Liquefied or Compressed-) will solve this problem soon, as they spread and take over gasoline automobiles as the primary mode of transportation for individuals. This assessment is backed by the recent success of electric cars like TESLA, and the increasing use of natural gas vehicles in Latin America (Brazil, Mexico), Central Asia (Iran, Pakistan, India) and Europe.

I do not share that outlook. For all their recent achievements, clean cars have achieved very little penetration in the car industry and are still confined to the margin. Moreover, they face many limitations and very strong headwinds: Major economic, social and environmental trends are running away from them and towards gasoline cars instead, making it nearly impossible in the near future to break out of their niche and overtake gasoline cars into the mass market.

Clean cars are still confined to the margin of the car industry.

Firstly, they are very expensive. For example, TESLA Model S, the most famous electric car on the market, is worth well over $60000 ($100000 for sport models) and is therefore out of reach for most car buyers, especially in this challenging economy. 

Secondly, the care required for their operation and maintenance often limits them to very special uses. Natural gas vehicles for example, whether powered by liquefied natural gas (LNG) or compressed natural gas (CNG), require advanced expertise in the handling, maintenance and disposal of gas tanks and are known to be used essentially for municipal or institutional fleets (transit buses, state-owned trucks, etc.).

They require whole new and very expensive infrastructures.

Electric cars, because of their limited range need a dense network of charging stations to be set up across the country. The domestic electrical grid is not viable for daily use, as it would take days to charge a car on a domestic electrical outlet. 

Natural gas vehicles need storage facilities, and a new extensive network of delivery facilities to be built around the country.

Economic, social and environmental trends favor Gasoline cars, not electric or natural gas ones

Oil supply is currently at its highest level in years. Furthermore, more and more oil supply is expected to come to market in the near future: Hydraulic Fracking is enabling a high level of oil production all over the US, and will do the same in other parts of the world in the future. Large oil reserves in Libya, Iran and Iraq, currently kept out of the market by political issues, are expected to reach the market in the coming years, as these political issues are resolved. 

At the same time Oil Demand is plummeting, pushed down by many economic, social and regulatory factors: The recent economic recession, and the slow recovery that followed have forced many consumers to change their driving habits in order to save on their gas bills and balance their budgets. These consumers are not likely to return to their spendthrift habits any time soon. Federal regulations and high oil prices have forced car manufacturers to reduce the emissions and gasoline consumption of their vehicles for years. This resulted in a massive  increase in gas mileage for the average automobile over the last decade. Local authorities, for environmental and traffic control reasons, are developing very aggressive policies to limit traffic within city limits and reduce air pollution. Several cities (Amsterdam, Utrecht, Zurich, Venice, etc.) have created car-free zones while others (Paris, London) are investing massively in Public Transit. Some, like Singapore, have taken a more drastic approach by limiting car ownership or usage altogether.

The combined effect of higher supply and lower demand will undoubtedly translate into lower oil prices and make gasoline cars even cheaper to operate and more attractive than they are today.

Concerns are now being raised about the total environmental cost of clean cars. 

While they are much cleaner to operate, their manufacturing and decommissioning processes are less environmentally friendly. The manufacturing and disposal of electric batteries for example are being called into question. Likewise, the storage, safeguarding and handling of natural gas tanks is raising eyebrows. The explosive nature of these tanks is cause for concern, especially when they are involved in accidents.

Thus, at first sight, clean cars appear to pollute air far less than their gasoline counterpart, especially when we only consider their driving emissions. But, when we factor in manufacturing and decommissioning emissions, they appear less environmentally-friendly than expected. Moreover, they are still limited to niche segments and will stay on the margin of the car industry for a long time to come, as economic, social and environmental trends favor a continued and increased reliance on gasoline automobiles. Therefore they will likely not be a solution to urban air pollution anytime soon. Technologies that clean fossil fuel (gasoline, diesel), improve fuel consumption (more efficient engines), and changes in consumer behavior offer a much better prospect for the future. Indeed, over the last decade, Evidence has shown that on average, car fuel consumption has been reduced significantly, emissions from gasoline and diesel engines have been slashed, and fewer miles have been driven by the public, thanks to these technologies and behavioral changes. Helped and mandated by federal and local policies, they offer a gradual yet more effective path towards an enduring solution to urban air pollution.


[1] Wikipedia “Blacksmith Institute” 

[2} Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) “National Emissions Inventory (NEI) Air Pollutant Emissions Trends Data” 

[3] Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) “National Greenhouse Gas Emissions Data“ 

[5] Wikipedia “Natural gas vehicle” 

[6] Wikipedia “Electric vehicle”

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