As someone who has gained interest in vehicle technology, I’m taken to reading up on green vehicle technology, and every now and then I will see an internet commenter say “Electric isn’t really zero emissions, you’re still burning coal to produce it.”
A similar argument exists in opposition to hydrogen, this one criticizes the forming process of hydrogen for using natural gas. (I am aware Hydrogen vehicles have other issues)
But thing is, even though zero emission vehicles cost pollution to make and cause pollution to charge/fuel, their advantage precisely lies on the fact that they themselves do not pollute.
Regular cars with regular ICE engines have seen reductions in emissions as technology advanced. Every year, manufacturers come up with more ways to reduce emissions, and every year you can reduce your emissions as long as you buy a new car. See the problem? You’re the one converting diesel into poisoned air, and you’re the one who pays the price when you find out your car actually emits 40x the acceptable levels of nox. And even when the manufacturer honest to god manages to make their car greener, whether or not the technology is able to have any effect depends entirely on adoption by consumers.
Are you gonna replace your car every 2 years because the new one had a 2% improvement? NO. If your car is well maintained and never gave you trouble, are you gonna replace it even if its 10 years old with 200000 miles? NO. Are you even gonna retrofit your car with the newest emissions-reducing device? Not unless its government mandated, mechanics are holy shit expensive.
On the other hand, hydrogen has the possibility of being run completely off electricity. So even though a Hydrogen car (FCV) is implicit in consuming natural gas and causing fracking related earthquakes right now, maybe in a few years there will be a revolutionary new efficient and green way to create hydrogen. Maybe in a few years, climate will change so bad that a ban on natural gas forces hydrogen to be produced using electricity. Or maybe, companies will start selling electric hydrogen machines that allow you to create fuel right in your own backyard, powered by the grid. Either way, you win without needing to replace your vehicle.
Pure electric cars are even better because a municipal powerplant is already inherently more efficient than a car powerplant. Suppose your city builds a new solar/wind/geothermal plant. Suppose your city builds a new nuclear plant. There’s much debate about LFTR reactors, but suppose it becomes reality, and new reactors replace old gas powerplants. Congratulations: your car is now 1% greener, by virtue of being zero emissions and drawing power from the grid which is now 1% greener.
The fact is, zero emission vehicles can exist in a zero emission world, while fossil fuel cars simply cannot. In 10 years when every other car has some crazy new “clean diesel” technology, your car will still be zero emissions. When we build giant spaceships powered by hamster farts, your car will still be zero emissions.
That’s the beauty of zero emission vehicles: their emissions are entirely dependent on the grid. The recent volkswagon scandals has hurt diesel VW’s resale values by a whole bunch, and diesel VWs are banned from being sold (and possibly driven) until their emissions problem is fixed. Meanwhile, suppose tomorrow we discover Teslas are made of panda blood. Sure, Tesla will go out of business, and sure, production of new cars will stop. However, existing Teslas will still retain most of their value. Owners will be mildly annoyed that their car is 0.01% panda blood, but its not gonna stop Teslas from being clean to operate.
Having emissions dependent on the grid has another benefit: the environmentally concerned will push for change on a much greater scale. One guy driving a prius over a jeep will barely make a dent on national emissions figures. However, install a new filter on a 1000MW power plant, and BAM, tons of emissions reduced daily. Large scale results that dwarf the choices of selfish individuals.