Photo: Chuck Burton/AP

Lots of celebrities drive Teslas and Nissan Leafs because they think electric vehicles make a strong statement about “green” environmental friendliness. But Mazda—a company that plans to stick with internal combustion engines for the long-haul—wants to remind us all that EVs aren’t necessarily that much greener than those with internal combustion engines (ICEs).

Late last month, Mazda held its Global Tech Forum in Frankfurt, introducing the world for the first time to its Spark Controlled Compression Ignition Engine—a combustion engine that uses good ol’ gasoline to provide locomotion.

Some folks out there questioned why they should be impressed with “old-school” gasoline engines when other automakers are launching fully electric cars powered by high-capacity lithium-ion battery packs. The answer, as Mazda made clear in its presentation to journalists, is that EVs aren’t necessarily cleaner than ICEs (particularly when those ICEs are augmented with electric motors).

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I bring this up because Australian car site caradvice has some juicy quotes like this one from Ichiro Hirose, head of powertrain development at Mazda (emphasis mine):

If you take Japan, for example, the media is harking on about EVs having zero CO2 – as if that is the absolute truth – it’s almost like they are controlling the minds of the media to make them believe this. I think the basis of the discussion must be first, what is the truth and where to do we go from there?

Though “controlling the minds” may be a bit strong, Hirose makes a good point here about how many people assume electric cars are definitely much cleaner than vehicles using internal combustion engines. But to know that for sure, Hirose says, you’ve got to do some math:

When you talk about the overall CO2 emission, we talk about EVs having an image. But if you look at where the power generation is coming from, and how it’s generated, it’s still producing a lot of CO2 before it gets to that EV. Of course, power generation with coal is giving of a lot of CO2, so you need to think about it in a very comprehensive way.

Hirose is alluding to what’s called a “well-to-wheel” analysis, which is just a way to determine the total CO2 emitted between extracting the base stock that’s eventually used to fuel the powerplant (the one under the hood, or the one generating household electricity) and the vehicle actually moving.

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Such an analysis is often broken up into two segments: “well-to-pump,” (which just looks at the energy required to extract natural resources, refine them/generate electricity from them, and transport them as fuel. Here’s a graphic showing how that works for gasoline production.) and “pump-to-wheel,” which accounts for the inefficiencies associated with the vehicle itself (motor, accessories, driveline, etc.).

Here’s a basic look at what a well-to-wheel analysis accounts for:

Mazda says it has done such an analysis with one of its current SKYACTIV engines (which has a fuel efficiency of 5.2L/100KM, or about 45 mpg), and compared it to an electric car with an efficiency of 21.2 KWH/100KM.

Mazda says that all its SKYACTIV engine-powered car needs is a 10 percent increase in fuel economy to reach the same overall CO2 output per kilometer as an EV whose battery pack gets its juice from power plants generating electricity via “standard means.”

Breaking it up by type of energy generation method, Mazda concludes that increasing a SKYACTIV engine-powered car’s fuel economy by 30 percent could lead to overall CO2 output on par with EVs that get their energy from Liquid Natural Gas, the “cleanest” of the fossil fuel-based power generation methods.

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Obviously, I can’t confirm these figures, and there are studies showing that current EVs are cleaner than current ICEs even if electricity comes from a coal plant. But Mazda’s point is a good one. People tend to think that, because ICE cars have their powerplants on-board, and electric vehicles don’t, that the latter don’t produce much CO2 and that the former is on its way out.

Mazda says that the reality is that improvements to combustion efficiency—along with some electrification—could bring ICEs close to EVs in terms of overall CO2 output. Especially since, right now, EVs require power plants just like ICE cars do, even if those powerplants are far away. (It’s worth noting that EVs having a remote power source is beneficial to people living in population centers in terms of health and noise pollution).

So Mazda’s point here is fairly straightforward: you’ve got to look at the entire picture (i.e. you’ve got to follow the “energy path” from the source) before you proclaim the electric motor to be far and away the cleanest, most environmentally way to move a car.

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It’s worth mentioning that the company makes it clear that it plans to invest in electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids as well. The hope is to use multiple power sources in its vehicles to “reduce CO2 in an optimum way for each region.”

For example, have a look at the graph above. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, right now in the U.S., natural gas accounts for around 34 percent of power generation, coal is at 30 percent, nuclear is at just under 20 percent and renewables (wind, hydro, solar, geothermal, etc.) account for about 15 percent.

Knowing that the vast majority of electricity (64 percent) is generated via coal and natural gas (which are fossil fuels that are burned to create steam that spins a turbine, which spins an electric generator—this produces considerable CO2), it becomes clear why Mazda and other car companies think improvements in ICEs may still be a clean solution in certain regions, even compared to EVs.

Slide: Mazda

But of course, it’s the renewable energy sources that make EVs so promising for major CO2 reduction potential. If electricity used to power a car can come from wind, sun and water, then EVs will truly be zero-emissions means of transportation. And right now, renewable energy is growing quickly thanks to government incentives and the fact that cost of such technology is dropping over time.

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Still, until all electricity comes from renewable sources, Mazda hopes to continue improving on not only engine efficiency (the main part of the “pump-to-wheel” equation), but also on the “well-to-pump” part. The latter, Mazda engineers told me, they plan to do by supporting research in “microalgae biofuel” (see slide above).

So yeah, the gas engine isn’t dead yet because it’s not necessarily that much dirtier than electric vehicles in terms of overall CO2 emissions, depending on how an EV’s electricity is generated (despite what the mind-controlled media says). With that in mind, Hirosa says the ICE will remain an integral part of Mazda’s strategy moving forward:

What we intend to do is really polish up on the ICE and once we are able to do that we will intelligently combine it with electrification devices so that we can get in terms of efficiencies, in regard to CO2, best efficiency in terms of a mobility device.

Seems logical to me.