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Lifetime emissions of EVs are lower than gasoline cars, experts say

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An electric vehicle charging point in Stoke-on-Trent, England.

Nathan Stirk | Getty Images News | Getty Images

The number of electric vehicles on the world’s roads is surging, hitting a record number last year.

That would seem to be good news, as the world tries to wean itself off fossil fuels that are wrecking the global climate. But as electric cars become more popular, some question just how environmentally friendly they are.

The batteries in electric vehicles, for example, charge on power that is coming straight off the electric grid — which is itself often powered by fossil fuels. And there are questions about how energy-intensive it is to build an EV or an EV battery, versus building a comparable traditional vehicle.

Are electric vehicles greener?

The short answer is yes — but their full green potential is still many years away.

Experts broadly agree that electric vehicles create a lower carbon footprint over the course of their lifetime than do cars and trucks that use traditional, internal combustion engines.

Last year, researchers from the universities of Cambridge, Exeter and Nijmegen in The Netherlands found that in 95% of the world, driving an electric car is better for the environment than driving a gasoline-powered car.

Electricity grids in most of the world are still powered by fossil fuels such as coal or oil, and EVs depend on that energy to get charged. Separately, EV battery production remains an energy-intensive process.

Producing electric vehicles leads to significantly more emissions than producing petrol cars … which is mostly from the battery production.

Florian Knobloch

Cambridge Centre for Environment, Energy and Natural Resource Governance

A study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Energy Initiative found that the battery and fuel production for an EV generates higher emissions than the manufacturing of an automobile. But those higher environmental costs are offset by EVs’ superior energy efficiency over time.

In short, the total emissions per mile for battery-powered cars are lower than comparable cars with internal combustion engines.

“If we are going to take a look at the current situation, in some countries, electric vehicles are better even with the current grid,” Sergey Paltsev, a senior research scientist at the MIT Energy Initiative and one of the study’s authors, told CNBC.

Paltsev explained that the full benefits of EVs will be realized only after the electricity sources become renewable, and it might take several decades for that to happen.

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“Currently, the electric vehicle in the U.S., on average, would emit about 200 grams of CO2 per mile,” he said. “We are projecting that with cleaning up the grid, we can reduce emissions from electric vehicles by 75%, from about 200 (grams) today to about 50 grams of CO2 per mile in 2050.”

Similarly, Paltsev said MIT research showed non-plug-in hybrid cars with internal combustion engines currently emit about 275 grams of CO2 per mile. In 2050, their projected emissions are expected to be between 160 to 205 grams of CO2 per mile — the range is wider than EVs, because fuel standards vary from place to place.

Decarbonization is the process of reducing greenhouse gas emission produced by the burning fossil fuels. Efforts to cut down pollution across various industries are expected to further reduce the environmental impact of EV production and charging over time.

“When you look forward to the rest of the decade, where we will see massive amounts of decarbonization in power generation and massive amount of decarbonization in the industrial sector, EVs will benefit from all of that decarbonization,” Eric Hannon, a Frankfurt-based partner at McKinsey & Company, told CNBC.

Batteries are the biggest emitter

EVs rely on rechargeable lithium-ion batteries to run. The process of making those batteries — from using mining raw materials like cobalt and lithium, to production in gigafactories and transportation — is energy-intensive, and one of the biggest sources of carbon emissions from EVs today, experts said.

Gigafactories are facilities that produce EV batteries on a large scale.

“Producing electric vehicles leads to significantly more emissions than producing petrol cars. Depending on the country of production, that’s between 30% to 40% extra in production emissions, which is mostly from the battery production,” said Florian Knobloch, a fellow at the Cambridge Centre for Environment, Energy and Natural Resource Governance.

Those higher production emission numbers are seen as “an initial investment, which pays off rather quickly due to the reduced lifetime emissions.”

China currently dominates battery production, with 93 gigafactories producing lithium-ion battery cells versus only four in the U.S., the Washington Post reported this year.

“I think the battery is the most complicated component in the EV, and has the most complex supply chain,” George Crabtree, director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Joint Center for Energy Storage Research, told CNBC, adding that the energy source used in battery production makes a huge difference on the carbon footprint for EVs.

Batteries made in older gigafactories in China are usually powered by fossil fuels, because that was the trend five to 10 years ago, he explained. So, EVs that are built with batteries from existing factories

But that’s changing, he said, as “people have realized that’s a huge carbon footprint.”

Experts pointed to other considerations around battery production.

They include unethical and environmentally unsustainable mining practices, as well as a complex geopolitical nature of the supply chain, where countries do not want to rely on other nations for raw materials like cobalt and lithium, or the finished batteries.

Mining raw materials needed for battery production will likely be the last to get decarbonized, according to Crabtree.

Recycling and decarbonizing the grid

Today, very few of the spent battery cells are recycled.

Experts said that can change over time as raw materials needed for battery production are in limited supply, leaving firms with no choice but to recycle.

McKinsey’s Hannon outlined other reasons for companies to step by their recycling efforts. They include a regulatory environment where producers, by law, would have to deal with spent batteries — and disposing them could be more expensive.

“People who point to a lack of a recycling infrastructure as a problem aren’t recognizing that we don’t need extensive recycling infrastructure yet because the cars are so new, we’re not needing many back,” he said.

Most auto companies are already working to ensure they have significant recycling capacity in place before EVs start reaching the end of life over the next decade, he added.

It’s not silver bullet for climate change mitigation. Ideally, you also try to reduce the number of cars massively, and try to push things such as public transport

Florian Knobloch

Cambridge Centre for Environment, Energy and Natural Resource Governance

Knobloch from Cambridge University said a lot of research is going into improving battery technology, to make them more environmentally sustainable and less reliant on scarce raw materials. More efforts are also needed in decarbonizing the electricity grid, he added.

“It’s very important that more renewable electricity generation capacity is added to the grid each year, than coal generation capacity,” Knobloch said.

“Nowadays, it’s much easier to build large scale solar or offshore wind compared to building new fossil fuel power plant. What we see is more renewable electricity coming into the grid all over the world.”

Still, he pointed out that generating electricity by using renewable sources will still emit greenhouse gases as there are emissions from producing the solar panels and wind turbines. “What we look at is how long will it take until the electricity grid is sufficiently decarbonized so that you see large benefit from electric vehicles,” Knobloch added.

Policies needed for societal change

Experts agree that a transition from gasoline-powered cars to EVs is not a panacea for the global fight against climate change.

It needs to go hand-in-hand with societal change that promotes greater use of public transportation and alternative modes of travel, including bicycles and walking.

Reducing the use of private vehicles requires plenty of funding and policy planning.

MIT’s Paltsev, who is also deputy director at the university’s joint program on the science and policy of global change, explained that there are currently about 1.2 billion fuel-powered cars on the road globally –that number is expected to increase to between 1.8 billion to 2 billion.

In comparison, there are only about 10 million electric vehicles currently.

People underestimate how many new cars have to be produced and how much materials will be needed to produce those electric vehicles, Paltsev said.

The International Energy Agency predicts that the number of electric cars, buses, vans and heavy trucks on roads is expected to hit 145 million by 2030.

Even if everyone drove EVs instead of gasoline-powered cars, there would still be plenty of emissions from the plug-in vehicles due to their sheer volume, according to Knobloch.

“So, it’s not silver bullet for climate change mitigation. Ideally, you also try to reduce the number of cars massively, and try to push things such as public transport,” he said. “Getting people away from individual car transport is as important.”

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White House prepares for potential government shutdown

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Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, center, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., arrive for a news conference to announce a framework for President Bidens economic plan in the Capitol Visitor Center on Thursday, September 23, 2021.

Tom Williams | CQ-Roll Call, Inc. | Getty Images

Democrats in Congress scrambled Thursday to beat a string of deadlines that hold massive stakes for both the health of the U.S. economy and President Joe Biden’s sweeping economic agenda.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., aim to work their way out of multiple binds as they try to prevent a government shutdown, a default on U.S. debt and the collapse of Biden’s domestic ambitions.

The leaders first find themselves staring at a Sept. 30 deadline to pass an appropriations bill before government funding lapses. The White House on Thursday began to advise federal agencies to prepare for the first government shutdown of the Covid-19 era.

The White House Office of Management and Budget is taking steps to let department and agency leaders know that, barring a new appropriations bill, they are expected to execute shutdown plans starting late next week. For many agencies, those plans often include sending workers home.

The office typically asks agencies seven days before a government shutdown to update their plans and will share a draft template each department can use to update government employees on congressional efforts to pass a funding bill and how many workers may need to be furloughed.

The communication does not reflect the office’s views on whether a continuing resolution is likely or not and is viewed as more of a formal duty.

Efforts to pass a new budget are underway on Capitol Hill, where House Democrats earlier this week passed a measure to fund the government, suspend the debt ceiling, and approve emergency aid such as disaster relief.

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That proposal is expected to stall in the Senate, where Republicans are unanimous in their opposition to any bill that seeks to raise or suspend the debt ceiling. 

Democrats are on tight economic timelines. Some are self-imposed, such as Pelosi’s promise to hold a vote on a $1 trillion infrastructure bill on or before Sept. 27. The Senate has already passed the measure.

But there are other, standing deadlines. While Congress must pass a new budget by the end of September to avoid a shutdown, lawmakers must also figure out a way to increase or suspend the debt ceiling by a to-be-determined “drop-dead” date.

Treasury officials estimate that lawmakers have until some point in October before the U.S. would default on its debt for the first time.

Despite the time crunch, Schumer has promised to take up the House-passed debt ceiling and government funding bill nonetheless and force the GOP to publicly vote against a bill that would keep the government open and allow the Treasury Department to continue to pay for legislation Congress has already authorized.

Raising or suspending the debt ceiling, or borrowing limit, does not authorize new federal spending, but allows Treasury to pay for legislation that lawmakers have already passed. An increase would allow the department to pay off bills associated with the trillions in Covid relief enacted under former President Donald Trump and Biden.

Many suspect that Pelosi will be forced to pass a new resolution without the debt ceiling to keep the government open. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said on multiple occasions that he would support such a “clean” bill to avoid a shutdown.

Separately, Pelosi and Schumer declared Thursday morning that they had reached an agreement on the “framework” for taxes that would be needed to fund Democrats’ $3.5 trillion package to revolutionize the U.S. public safety net.

“The White House, the House and the Senate have reached agreement on a framework that will pay for any final negotiated agreement,” Schumer said. “So, the revenue side of this, we have an agreement on. It’s a framework. An agreement on the framework.”

Moderate and progressive Democrats have clashed over the size and scope of the package. Neither Pelosi nor Schumer clarified whether the negotiators had made decisions whittling down their options for financing the bill, or were simply in agreement over which of many options they are collectively willing to consider.

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CDC panel endorses third Pfizer doses for millions

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Lisa Wilson receives a shot of the Pfizer vaccine at a mobile COVID-19 vaccination site in Orlando, Florida.

Paul Hennessy | SOPA Images | LightRocket | Getty Images

A key Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory group voted Thursday to recommend distributing Pfizer and BioNTech‘s Covid-19 booster shots to older Americans, nursing home residents and other vulnerable Americans, clearing the way for the agency to give the final OK as early as this evening.

The agency’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices specifically unanimously endorsed giving third Pfizer shots to people 65 and older and nursing home residents in the first of four votes. The panel also recommended third shots for adults age 18 to 64 with underlying conditions.

The panel will also vote on whether to recommend the shots for adults who are more frequently exposed to the virus – possibly including people in nursing homes and prisons, teachers, front-line health employees and other essential workers.

The elderly were among the first groups to get the initial shots in December and January.

The vote is seen as mostly a win for President Joe Biden, whose administration has said it wants to give booster shots to all eligible Americans 16 and older as early as this week. While the CDC panel’s recommendation doesn’t give the Biden administration everything it wanted, boosters will still be on the way for millions of Americans.

The endorsement comes a day after the Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization to administer third Pfizer shots to many Americans six months after they complete their first two doses. While the CDC’s panel’s recommendation isn’t binding, Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky is expected to accept the panel’s endorsement shortly.

Walensky addressed the committee Thursday before the vote, thanking them for their work and laying out what’s at stake.

“These data are not perfect, yet collectively they form a picture for us, and they are what we have in this moment to make a decision about the next stage in this pandemic,” she said.

Prior to the vote, some committee members said they worried that widely offering boosters could interfere with efforts to get the shots to the unvaccinated or potentially reduce confidence in the vaccines’ effectiveness. Others were frustrated that only Pfizer recipients would be eligible to get the shots, leaving out millions of Americans who got the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.

The vote came at the end of a two-day meeting, where CDC advisors listened to several presentations on data to support the wide distribution of booster shots, including one presentation from a Pfizer executive who displayed data that showed a third shot appears to be safe and boost antibody levels in recipients.

During one presentation Thursday, CDC official Dr. Sara Oliver presented observational studies from Israel, where officials began inoculating the nation’s population ahead of many other countries and began offering third shots to their citizens in late July.

The Israel data has been criticized by at least one FDA official as so-called observational studies don’t adhere to the same standards as formal clinical trials.

“We can use the experience from Israel to inform our knowledge of the safety of boosters,” Oliver said, adding the country has only reported one case of a rare heart inflammation condition known as myocarditis out of nearly 3 million third doses administered.

CDC official Dr. Kathleen Dooling said data also suggests a third dose may reduce the risk of severe illness in older adults and people with comorbidities. Potential risks include myocarditis, although this risk is very rare, occurring mostly in males under 30, she said.

“The third dose of Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine appears to have similar reactogenicity as the second dose,” she added.

The topic of who should get boosters and when has been a contentious topic among the scientific community since the Biden administration outlined its plan to widely distribute boosters last month.

In a paper published days before an FDA advisory meeting last week, a leading group of scientists said available data showed vaccine protection against severe disease persists, even as the effectiveness against mild disease wanes over time. The authors, including two high-ranking FDA officials and multiple scientists from the World Health Organization, argued in the medical journal The Lancet that widely distributing booster shots to the general public is not appropriate at this time.

In outlining plans last month to start distributing boosters as early as this week, Biden administration officials cited three CDC studies that showed the vaccines’ protection against Covid diminished over several months. Senior health officials said at the time they worried protection against severe disease, hospitalization and death “could” diminish in the months ahead, especially among those who are at higher risk or were inoculated during the earlier phases of the vaccination rollout.

This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.

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NIH Director Collins calls Israeli data ‘impressive’

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A patient receives his booster dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine during an Oakland County Health Department vaccination clinic at the Southfield Pavilion on August 24, 2021 in Southfield, Michigan.

Emily Elconin | Getty Images

National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins called Israel’s data on Covid-19 booster shots “impressive,” noting that they provided a tenfold reduction in infection for people who received a third dose.

Israel began administering boosters in late July to individuals over 60, giving scientists more time to examine their ability to combat Covid and bolster the waning effectiveness of the initial series of doses. Collins’ comments Thursday came just a day after the Food and Drug Administration approved Pfizer and BioNTech’s Covid booster for high-risk people, including anyone 65 and older.

“Without tipping my hand too much, I will say the data looks really impressive, that the boosters do in fact provide substantial reduction in infection,” Collins said during a discussion on Covid hosted by Bloomberg Philanthropies. “Like a tenfold reduction just within 12 days after that booster, and also a reduction in severe illness, which is the thing we’re most concerned about.”

Collins added that the Israeli data indicated a roughly twelvefold reduction in severe Covid as the nation was starting to experience more breakthrough cases. Pfizer reported on Aug. 25 that recipients of its third doses experienced a threefold increase in antibodies.

The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, a panel of medical authorities who offer guidance to the agency, will vote Thursday on whether to endorse the FDA’s booster decision. The panel began a two-day series of presentations on boosters on Wednesday to give experts and the public a chance to hear more data before the final vote.

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