As the automotive industry tries to start a once-in-a-generation revolution, we can expect more moral grandstanding
According to the Cambridge dictionary, “virtue signalling” is “the popular modern habit of indicating that one has virtue merely by expressing disgust or favour for certain political ideas or cultural happenings.” Its vacuity is everywhere, from the “greenwashing” that sees corporations signal fictitious climate change policies that they might meet equally empty ESG claims; to Donald Trump issuing a posthumous pardon for Susan B. Anthony when, well, you know what he likes to grab. Closer to home, pretty much anything that comes out of Justin Trudeau’s mouth is feigned righteousness. It is, in the finely chosen words of my crochety old man — may you rest in peace, you wise old bugger — the very worst of moral grandstanding.

In the automotive world, it is automakers touting their EV efforts even as they continue to flood the market with gas-guzzling pickups. It’s European politicians pushing diesel’s CO2-reduction benefits when they were perfectly aware that the oil-burners they were promoting were emitting life-threatening carcinogens. It is, if you believe Edward Niedermeyer, author of Ludicrous: The Unvarnished Story of Tesla Motors, Tesla using diesel generators to power Supercharger stations, their exhaust — in a quote that perhaps sums up everything wrong with Musk-ian exaggeration — “mingling with the unmistakable smell of bullshit.” Moral grandstanding, indeed.

We may have now exceeded even those depths of bandwagon-jumping, however. Just travel with me all the way to the Netherlands, and the Eindhoven University of Technology, where it is claimed that 35 students have invented, according to CNET at least, a “car that cleans the atmosphere while driving.

On the face of it, it would seem the ultimate in climate-change mitigation. Marry one electric car — and its zero tailpipe emissions — with two carbon-capture devices in the front grille, and presto, you have every environmentalist’s wet dream. The goal, says Louise de Laat, leader of the TU/ecomotive team, is to make the Zero Emissions Mobility (ZEM) carbon-neutral throughout its entire life cycle.

Except, as Mad About You’s Paul Reisner used to say to Helen Hunt, “Not so much.”

Just as an exercise in incredulity, let’s compare the amount of carbon dioxide such a car might capture; to how much CO2 is actually produced in the manufacture of a zero-emissions electric vehicle. For this we’ll turn to Volvo, which, to its great credit, provides the most detailed analysis available regarding how much greenhouse gases electric vehicles create in their lifetime.

According to the Carbon Footprint Report for its fully-electric C40 Recharge, about 18 metric tonnes of CO2 are emitted in the production of the BEV’s hard parts. Everything from the melding of aluminum, steel, and plastic that makes up the C40’s chassis; to the electronics that power its hardware contribute to its footprint.

But that’s not all. Producing its lithium-ion battery creates another seven metric tonnes of carbon dioxide. Throw in another 1.4 tonnes produced by the actual manufacturing facility, and you have 26.4 metric tonnes of CO2 that would need sequestering (that’s roughly twice as much as required to manufacture an ICE-powered XC40, by the way).*

A little basic math reveals that, at an emission rate of 0.0000625 kilograms of CO2 per kilometre — that’s the ZEM’s rated two kilos every 32,000 klicks — Eindhoven’s car would have to travel about 422 million miles to sequester all of those 26.4 tonnes of CO2. And that’s if we assume that all the charging stations were powered by windmills; it’d be closer to 800 million miles if they were hooked up to the typical electricity grid.

If removing CO2 from the air were viable, we wouldn’t need EVs—we’d just remove the carbon, re-refine it back into gasoline, and create a virtuous net-zero circle
Because I have absolutely no knowledge of our solar system, I Googled some basic astronomy. The moon is (a mere) 384,000 klicks from earth. That means the ZEM would have to travel the equivalent of more than 500 Apollo 11 missions before it absorbed all the carbon dioxide emitted in its manufacture. Mars is 88 million miles away, so that means the Rover could get there four times over before the ZEM was carbon-neutral. Hell, you could get to the sun and back and the ZEM would be on the wrong side of the equation. In fact, for the ZEM to be carbon-neutral in the lifetime Volvo uses in its emissions calculations — 200,000 kilometres — it would have to absorb a little over a tenth of a kilogram per kilometre, roughly 2,000 times its current efficiency. In other words, it’s next to useless as far as carbon capture goes.

Nor is it likely to get much better. The fact is that capturing carbon is both difficult and expensive, that second bit being the root cause of all our greenhouse-gas woes. Even with current carbon taxes, it’s still a lot cheaper to simply emit CO2 into the atmosphere than to remove it.

Indeed, if removing CO2 from the air were a viable process, we wouldn’t need EVs at all. We’d just remove the carbon from the air, re-refine it back into gasoline (as Porsche is doing with its synthetic fuels) and create a virtuous net-zero circle using the good old-fashioned internal-combustion engine. Expecting carbon-capture technology to become cheap and efficient enough that a couple of ‘sponges’ in the grille are going to significantly affect the amount of carbon dioxide in the air would seem a fool’s errand.

That hasn’t stopped Green Car Congress from virtue-signalling that the Eindhoven project could have a significant impact, claiming “that ten cars can store as much carbon dioxide as an average tree [our planet’s nature carbon capturers].” 

And actually, those number do work. The Eindhoven magic-capture-wagon sequesters, as I mentioned, two kilograms of carbon every 32,000 kilometres. A tree — a “mature” tree, says the U.S. Department of Agriculture — will absorb up about 22 kg of CO2 every year. Do the math, and while a single carbon-capturing BEV would need to be driven 350,000 kilometres a year to do what one mature tree does in a year, ten such cars could indeed, if they were each driven 35,000 kilometres a year, be equal to one single tree.

Except that, as I write this, mining companies in Indonesia are busy denuding rainforests on the Obi and Sulawesi islands. Their mission? Simple. To source nickel to be built into electric vehicle batteries. Yes, we’re ridding them of nature’s most efficient CO2 sequesters so we can build future vehicles that might capture one-tenth as much carbon. Try virtue-signalling that!

*Author’s note: The statement above should not in any way be misconstrued as claiming that, over time, an EV is not cleaner and greener than an ICE. Since the C40 Recharge emits no carbon while driving, it will eventually ‘catch up’ to the fossil-fueled XC40, and beyond a certain point produce less CO2 overall.

Exactly how long that takes depends on how clean the electricity is that you’re using to recharge the C40’s batteries. If it’s greener-than-thou wind power, then by 49,000 kilometres, the electrified C40 will be producing less lifetime CO2 emissions. If the grid is the E.U.’s semi-environmentally-friendly mixture of solar, nuclear, and fossil fuels, that break-even point is closer to 77,000 klicks. And, if you’re making the calculation using the global electricity mix — which thanks to heavy polluters like China is more carbon-intensive — then you’ll have to wait 110,000 kilometres before you’re saving the planet. For those disputing the numbers, it might be worth remembering that Volvo is one of the true believers, boasting one of the most aggressive plans to convert its entire fleet to battery electric.

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