The Risk-Monger

Don’t buy an electric car!

If you care about the environment, don’t buy an electric car. I have just spent some time in the Great State of Michigan, and while the enthusiasm for electric cars there is palatable, the conversations I have had with people in the field have not been reassuring.

Bottom line: if you care about the environment, don’t buy any car at all: walk, pedal or take the bus. If it is essential for you in your world to own a vehicle, find one that is 20 years old and use it only when necessary. I have come to the opinion that greener cars are much less green than our ecological guilt complex would want us to believe.

As the Risk-Monger tends to hug smokestacks rather than trees, what has got a bee in his bonnet this time? It is not just the sanctimonious pomp of “green” car producers and drivers. It is not just the thousands who die every year from automobile accidents. It is not just the health problems from air and noise pollution or the violation of historic city centres and forests with roads and noise. It is not just the planned and perceived obsolescence that leads us to need a new car every five years (even though cars built in the 1950s are still capable of being driven today). It is not just that transportation accounts for around a third of global anthropogenic CO2 emissions. The Risk-Monger has commented on all of these points before – we all know these points as we are not stupid.

It seems that the economic dependence, jobs and love affair western societies have had with the car has allowed us to accept the contradictions of such an unsustainable product. Where is the outrage as we move into a more unsustainable car production phase and pretend that we are all being greener? We need to stop producing green, electric cars before we destroy the environment.


There is no accepted carbon labelling scheme for cars (too complex of a supply chain to measure?), but it is widely agreed that the average car will produce about a third of its lifetime CO2 emissions before it is driven off of the lot (smelting the steel, moulding the plastics, glass, rubber, electronics, assembly …). Hybrids have two motors and large batteries (that often need replacing and are costly to recycle) but there is no serious debate on what they are costing to the environment to build. I don’t even want to begin to touch the rare earths debate here, but sustainable and efficient battery technology is still decades away. Until we get a credible lifecycle assessment for electric car manufacturing we can only assume that electric / hybrid cars emit more CO2 to produce and are more difficult to recycle. Electric car drivers should not be given any green cred but should be paying higher CO2 taxes.

I find it offensively absurd that policy-makers today consider building more cars to be a greener solution. Cash for Clunker schemes aimed at taking cars that were only seven or eight years old off of the road. In Belgium, it is common practice (with the leasing and inspection schemes) to replace cars every four to five years. Given the CO2 emitted to continue making cars, how can this be environmentally sustainable? I would argue that manufacturers must guarantee that their cars provide more than 20 years of road service (if not, they should be penalised). Other incentives should be used (declining road tax rates as cars age, retro-fitting premiums, …). Car production is not just about jobs and exports.

The Smart Greed

The plan for a smart grid is a good example of how a cloud of stupidity is descending on us in slow motion. In order to avoid scheduled rolling black-outs when the climate ninnies succeed in stopping fossil-based energy production (and nuclear!), a lot of clever technological gadgets will be sold to us to allow us to use more energy when it is more available. This is based on the assumption that most energy consumption will be residential (most factories, production sites and offices will likely relocate to countries that can guarantee energy supply) and that most appliances will be able to switch on during off-peak hours.

The scary scenario would be in say five years, when electric cars start coming on-stream by 2-5% incremental increases per year. All of these volt-suckers will be draining the smart grids at a time when our residential needs will be switching on (could I then plug my morning coffee machine into my electric car?). WWF, in a report demanding more cars, thinks that there should be no problem, but so many times in the past, we have seen how their research has been more idealistic and aspirational.

Burning rubber

As “Clydesdales” go through running shoes faster than lighter weighted runners, heavy cars (the kind with two motors and large batteries) go through tyres much faster than normal, “less green” cars. Internet forums are full of questions from Prius drivers who are trying to find economic solutions to their frequent tyre changes. What are the ecological problems of more rubber being burnt? Most tyres today use synthetic rubber and I have not been able to find reliable data on the CO2 emissions in manufacturing or recycling them. Additives like carbon black complicate the process, but we can safely conclude that fewer tyre changes are better for the environment. Furthermore, as heavier cars leave more tyre dust in the urban atmosphere (leading to increased respiratory illnesses), we should not ignore this issue (but apparently we do).

Why does this blog seem counter-intuitive? Is it because we have been PR’ed up the backside that electricity can be green and reliable? That we have been told so often that hybrids or full electric cars are greener? That cars in general are seen as a basic right in the developed world, and a dream or ambition in the developing world? Or is it because NGOs do not seriously campaign against cars (although they campaign against global companies like VW or Exxon as part of their anti-globalisation rants)? The reason the big environmental NGOs don’t run large campaigns against the single most environmentally destructive product we have is because there is no money in it for them. If a campaigner comes up to someone on the street and asks him to contribute to a campaign to get his car off the road, should we be surprised if the fundraising is a little bit difficult? Without any serious voice to get all cars off the road (green or electric), should we be surprised at how unsustainable our behaviour has been?

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  1. Your criticism of the electric car seems to have been the focus of a criticism of many other solutions that are being implemented to mitigate climate change. Assuming that you accept the IPCC recommendations concerning climate change, then we need to be testing and implementing many different trials of solutions to the climate change conundrum, some will work and some will not. We won’t know for sure until they are tested and we need to of course do risk assessment on all of them if they involve large geoengineering. See Ravetz and Funtowicz on Post Normal Science or at the NUSAP website. It would appear with your criticism of the electric car, that you are allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good. Is that a basis for a positive vision of the future?

    1. Thanks David. I expressed in an earlier blog that I don’t think there is much point to mitigation. Although I am attracted to the ideas of several geoengineering projects and long for a return to the glory days of Brunel, I sadly feel that science has lost so much of the public trust that any major project would be handicapped by public outrage.
      Adaptation is our only option – Opportunism is not a good option. Certain industries like the auto or solar industries see decarbonisation as a growth business, but they are using good PR to hide the fact that they are increasing CO2. This blog is a continuation of another blog which prompted some discussion on how to make the auto industry behave more sustainably (besides sustainable PR) – I am still looking for CO2 data for the solar industry (talk about smoke and mirrors). If CO2 is cumulative, then we need to stop increasing CO2 today to decarbonise in 2050 – that is madness. I don’t think it is a question of “allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good” but rather trying to raise awareness that this green perfection is leading the bad to become disasterous.

  2. The presence of oil is what made the car possible at the present scale. It also made the world population more than six times greater than it was before because it fueled an industrial revolution. It made what was basically a rural life for most people into basically an urban life for most people. Individual transportation like a car is almost a necessity. The horse was terribly polluting in large urban areas and the car was welcomed as a relief from that.

    Mass transit is a possibility but it limits people to urban areas. People will want cars if they can have them. When cars are not available, we must rebuild our cities and our basic life styles. It will not be easy. I am an Urban Planner.

    The largest problem with the coming loss of oil is its present use as fertilizer. That multiplies the productivity of the available soil. Without that it will be necessary to reduce the world population substantially. That will not be easy. The concern about conventional versus electric cars will pale in significance by comparison.

    The “right ” to make children at will is FAR more closely held than the right to own a car and anyone can do that.

    Whether an electric car is environmentally sound or not is not the issue, anyway. The time will be upon us shortly when the alternative to the electric car will be a horse. It is far better to perfect the electric car while we have the luxury of doing that than to be stuck later with a horse.

    1. I don’t have problems with oil, nor do I believe the peak oil scare stories (there is always bitumen and the Arctic!). Oil was one available form of energy in the early days when cars started being produced (other alternatives included electricity and peanut oil). Petrol though was the easiest to distribute then, as now.
      Now I have issue with the idea that we keep producing electric cars until they become more sustainable (same argument goes for solar). OK to keep developing them in the lab, but stop emitting (and subsidising) so much CO2 to mass produce an emerging imperfect technology. When you can prove that it is sustainable, then you can have the right to market it, but not until then (the sense of urgency is an opportunistic fiction).
      Why do activists insist that we must do it now so that we can improve the technology, but refuse the same flexibility for carbon capture and storage for coal emissions?

  3. Mr Risk Manager,

    “Why do activists insist that we must do it now…?” You are speaking about perfecting the electric car.

    The answer is that it takes a long time to develop a battery and determine if it will be effective. It likely takes another long time to develop the production capacity to produce that battery. If that does not work, a new cycle must replace it. These cycles may be tens of years each but they may overlap.

    The “engine” for this process is the money received from the sale of product. The motivation for this process is the potential profit from doing better than has been done in the past. These thing take time, lots of time. The availability of cheap energy like oil makes this process much simpler and more successful.

    Now is a good time to start the process slowly and that is just what is happening.

    My question to you is “Why are you so alarmed by that?”

    It is true that oil is not the only source of energy. It, however has been developed. Others will only be developed to replace it if they prove profitable and able to supply what is needed.

    Will oil and coal run out? Of course. It is only a matter of when. There are much better uses for oil and coal than burning them including fertilizer, medicines, plastics, construction materials, bitumen and many more. We would be much better off if we stopped burning them now even if we are a long way from running out.

  4. Dear,

    I fully agree on the criticism towards electric cars. There are so many alternatives to private transportation that cars are actually a bit old fashioned these days. And saying that cars have enabled an urban lifestyle is not accurate. First, because you don’t need a car in cities. Second, because it is simply anachronical and geographically incorrect. Have you seen some former farmers driving cars in African cities? and in Asia? what about South Amercia? The ones that can afford that are not the ones that were living in the country side (as a general rule – you’ll find exceptions).

    How can an ecologist say that electric cars are a nice perspective? About 30% of urban space is devoted to cars (depending on the city of course). Imagine what kind of social interaction you could create if you have 30% more space. And for the deep ecologist, how many species would reappear if you use these public spaces in an eco-friendly fashion.

    If we have to address transportation issues, why don’t we actually review the transportation model itself? Since it is or will shortly become a social and public issue (I’m still waiting for the “transportation divide” concept to pop up), why don’t governments take some initiatives in here? Why is the car industry not cooperating together and with external actors, looking for real alternatives to oil. I think that the answer is that they do not care about the environmental issues, as far as it does not impact social climate in a way that could hinder their business. And that’s why you should not buy an electric car. At least, consider buying an electric motorcycle, or just pedal if you’re still able to.

    Good debate, no straight answers, just because we need to change our framework and lifestyles to address it correctly. And who would like that? Only some people earning less than 2 dollars a day. So, who cares… tragic!

    1. Thank you for your comment Maxime (and sorry for the delay in approving it).
      We need to think differently on this issue, but the cynic in me says that a car is a widely desired good (even for those who think of themselves as environmentally concerned) so there is little push from any interest groups to make it less desirable or push changes.
      I would consider a need to enlarge the transportation divide (I like that term!) – make cars more expensive in line with their environmental impact (and that definitely includes electric cars and the CO2 impact from production). All cars should be heavily taxed (better to tax per km driven, and with GPS, tax urban kms much higher to bring in the impact given the alternatives).
      The design needs to be addressed as well. Why is the exhaust pipe located below at the rear of the car? So we don’t see the pollution being emitted. This is madness as it is at the perfect height for babies in prams to directly breathe in the fumes. Force car manufacturers to put the tailpipes on the car roof (like lorries) so we can all see the pollution. It might shame drivers to drive less in congested cities when they look at all of the polluters around them.
      We need courageous leaders for this, and a little less hypocrisy from the interest groups.

  5. Even if electric vehicles today are the equivalent of a 35MPG vehicle for CO2 emissions, tomorrow will not be true. There is a good explanation about why we want to go all EV now regardless of the CO2 equivalence today at Electric Vehicles are the equivalent of a 34mpg Gas Powered Car. We can ask ourself: Do They Have a Future?

    1. This is a common argument and when I was representing companies trying to break into established markets, I also used this approach (registering environmental NGOs to act as well-intended mercenaries for my battles was simply Lobbying 101). But it is bad for the environment and unethical. CO2 is cumulative – the CO2 we emit today will have a greater impact than the CO2 we save in 2050. Go for electric cars when the research has shown serious savings – getting everyone in Belgium to have their company car become a Prius through fiscal measures means that automakers are profiting from second rate technology – why should they rush to actually make a green technology? Saying we need to create a market even if it is destructive so that we can iterate the development is not only lazy research and innovation, it is unethical – let us pollute more and profit more today so we can tweak it tomorrow (Should we let HIV patients spread the virus freely so we will be able to have a wider research base and market to find a cure in the future?). We should be telling the automotive industry that the solution is fewer cars produced that last longer on the road (and taxed to be a luxury item). Do electric cars have a future? Maybe (if people don’t want to change their consumption behaviour), but we had thought wind and solar had a future until alternative natural gas extraction measures made the costs to the environment and the economy of renewables look silly. I am afraid that electric cars may go the same way if we had enlightened thinking on sustainable transportation.

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