Are hybrid vehicles actually eco-friendly?

Posted on : 2021-08-09 17:02 KST Modified on : 2021-08-09 17:02 KST
Hybrid cars are considered eco-friendly by law in South Korea and Japan, but not in the US or the EU
From the left: Ioniq 6, Ioniq 7, Ioniq 5 (provided by Hyundai Motor)
From the left: Ioniq 6, Ioniq 7, Ioniq 5 (provided by Hyundai Motor)

Are hybrid cars really “eco-friendly”? It seems like it should be a simple question to answer, but it isn’t.

Both the US and Europe say “no.” The US, which plans to have eco-friendly cars account for half of all its new car sales as of 2030, did not include hybrid automobiles in that category. The European Union plans to ban sales of internal combustion engine vehicles from the region as of 2035, and hybrid cars are included among those subject to the ban.

South Korea says “yes.” Hybrid vehicles are unambiguously categorized as “environment-friendly” in the Act on Promotion of Development and Distribution of Environment-Friendly Motor Vehicles. In a government announcement of plans to achieve cumulative sales of 2.83 million eco-friendly cars by 2025, hybrid vehicles accounted for 1.5 million, or 53 percent.

Japan’s biggest automaker Toyota and other automobile manufacturers share the South Korean government’s view.

There’s a simple reason for counting hybrid vehicles as eco-friendly: they are eco-friendlier than electric vehicles (EVs) in places unable to produce clean electricity that does not emit greenhouse gases.

To be sure, environmental groups like Greenpeace have been up in arms. They maintain that automakers have developed a strained justification for selling more internal combustion engine vehicles.

Has the South Korean government fallen for their stratagem?

Calculations showed that in the Korea Electric Power Corporation bulletin on power generation statistics, coal and gas accounted for 62 percent of all domestic electricity production between January and May 2020 — the same rate as last year. This was a far higher percentage than the 49 percent for all Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development member states last year as calculated by the International Energy Agency.

In South Korea, producing one kilowatt-hour of electrical energy results in carbon dioxide emissions of 459.4 grams (greenhouse gas emissions index, 2017). A round trip between Seoul and Busan (around 800 kilometers) by the Ioniq 5, an EV produced by Hyundai Motor that runs for 5.1 kilometers per kilowatt-hour, would generate around 72 kilograms of CO2.

In contrast, the same distance of travel by a Toyota Camry Hybrid or Hyundai Grandeur Hybrid — which respectively generate 91 grams and 108 grams of CO2 per kilometer — would result in emissions of 73 kilograms or 86 kilograms. In other words, the hybrids produce slightly more CO2 emissions than the EV.

A different result may be found when the full life cycle is considered, including the vehicle and fuel production, driving, and disposal stages.

In a recent contribution to “Auto Journal,” Song Han-ho, a professor of mechanical engineering at Seoul National University, wrote that there was “almost no difference in greenhouse gas emissions for hybrids and EVs when the entire process for a domestic compact car was considered, including vehicle material and component production, assembly, driving, and disposal.”

In particular, the high carbon emissions in the EV battery disposal process were singled out for mention.

The Korea Energy Economics Institute, a state-run think tank, called for a reexamination of the government’s EV promotion policy in a 2018 report, noting that EVs “produce a considerable amount of particulates (PM10) due to brake pad and tire wear and the electricity generation stage.”

This is similarly a focus for the South Korean government’s countermeasures with its plan for using hybrid vehicles as a realistic alternative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“Eco-friendly vehicle policies may differ among countries due to the power generation structure, people’s driving habits, and fueling convenience,” said Lee Min-woo, head of the automobile division for the South Korean Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy.

“Given our natural environment that makes it difficult to substantially increase our new and renewable energy in a short period of time and our residential environment centering on apartments, where it is difficult to change EVs, we will need to combine hybrid and electric vehicles for the time being,” he said.

Another problem is the lack of eco-friendly transportation measures for the convenience of working-class people who rely on public transportation, as subsidies are awarded to the high-earners who purchase expensive EVs.

Lee Jae-young, a senior research fellow at the Daejeon Sejong Research Institute and steering committee member with Green Korea, said, “When it comes to reducing carbon, the important thing is encouraging people to walk, bike, and use public transportation rather than using cars.”

By Park Jong-o, staff reporter

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