We constantly hear that electric cars are the future—cleaner, cheaper and better. But if they’re so good, why does California need to ban gasoline-powered cars? Why does the world spend $30 billion a year subsidizing electric ones?
In reality, electric cars are only sometimes and somewhat better than the alternatives, they’re often much costlier, and they aren’t necessarily all that much cleaner. Over its lifetime, an electric car does emit less CO2 than a gasoline car, but the difference can range considerably depending on how the electricity is generated. Making batteries for electric cars also requires a massive amount of energy, mostly from burning coal in China. Add it all up and the International Energy Agency estimates that an electric car emits a little less than half as much CO2 as a gasoline-powered one.
The climate effect of our electric-car efforts in the 2020s will be trivial. If every country achieved its stated ambitious electric-vehicle targets by 2030, the world would save 231 million tons of CO2 emissions. Plugging these savings into the standard United Nations Climate Panel model, that comes to a reduction of 0.0002 degree Fahrenheit by the end of the century.
Electric cars’ impact on air pollution isn’t as straightforward as you might think. The vehicles themselves pollute only slightly less than a gasoline car because their massive batteries and consequent weight leads to more particulate pollution from greater wear on brakes, tires and roads. On top of that, the additional electricity they require can throw up large amounts of air pollution depending on how it’s generated. One recent study found that electric cars put out more of the most dangerous particulate air pollution than gasoline-powered cars in 70% of U.S. states. An American Economic Association study found that rather than lowering air pollution, on average each additional electric car in the U.S. causes additional air-pollution damage worth $1,100 over its lifetime.
The minerals required for those batteries also present an ethical problem, as many are mined in areas with dismal human-rights records. Most cobalt, for instance, is dug out in Congo, where child labor is not uncommon, specifically in mining. There are security risks too, given that mineral processing is concentrated in China.
Increased demand for already-prized minerals is likely to drive up the price of electric cars significantly. The International Energy Agency projects that if electric cars became as prevalent as they would have to be for the world to reach net zero by 2050, the annual total demand for lithium for automobile batteries alone that year would be almost 28 times as much as current annual global lithium production. The material prices for batteries this year are more than three times what they were in 2021, and electricity isn’t getting cheaper either.
Even if rising costs weren’t an issue, electric cars wouldn’t be much of a bargain. Proponents argue that though they’re more expensive to purchase, electric cars are cheaper to drive. But a new reportfrom a U.S. Energy Department laboratory found that even in 2025 the agency’s default electric car’s total lifetime cost will be 9% higher than a gasoline car’s, and the study relied on the very generous assumption that electric cars are driven as much as regular ones. In reality, electric cars are driven less than half as much, which means they’re much costlier per mile.
In part this is because electric cars are often a luxury item. Two-thirds of the households in the U.S. that own one have incomes exceeding $100,000 a year. For 9 in 10 of electric-vehicle-owning households, it’s only a second car. They also have a gasoline-powered car—usually a bigger one, such as an SUV, pickup truck or minivan—that they use for long trips, given its longer range. And it takes additional costs to make electric cars convenient—such as installing a charger in your garage. Those who can’t afford it, or who don’t have a garage, will have to spend a lot more time at commercial chargers than it takes to fill up a car with gasoline.
This is all why electric cars still require such massive subsidies to sell. Norway is the only country where most new cars are electric, and that took wiping the sales and registration tax on these vehicles—worth $25,160 a car—on top of other tax breaks such as reduced tolls. Even so, only 12.6% of all Norwegian cars on the road are electric. The country has the wealth to pay for them partly because of its oil revenue, and the trade is dubious: To cut one ton of CO2 emissions through the subsidization of electric cars, Norway has to sell 100 barrels of oil, which emit 40 tons of CO2.
Needless to say, other countries’ car stocks aren’t likely to be anywhere close to 100% electric anytime soon. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that barring new legislation only about 17% of all new U.S. cars will be electric by 2050, which translates to 13% of the total American car stock. As consumers continue to vote with their wallets against electric cars, it is hard to imagine places like California continuing to demand that they can purchase only electric ones.
Electric vehicles will take over the market only if innovation makes them actually better and cheaper than gasoline-powered cars. Politicians are spending hundreds of billions of dollars and keeping consumers from the cars they want for virtually no climate benefit.
Mr. Lomborg is president of the Copenhagen Consensus, a visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and author of “False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet.”