The Risk-Monger

Last year, the Risk-Monger expressed frustration that no one was prepared to study the amount of CO2 emitted to produce electric cars, but he suspected that hybrids, with two engines and large batteries, must emit much more CO2 than diesel or petrol cars. Last week (4 October 2012) a report was published by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology that finally performed a lifecycle assessment comparing electric cars to conventional cars. And the results are not what the environmentalists had promised us: taking the manufacturing process into account, electric cars produce more CO2 than diesel cars and the battery production releases more toxins into the environment.

People want to believe that green cars expunge consumers from the guilt of their polluting indulgence. As a reminder, environmentalism is not about facts; it is about feeling good about yourself (and, for many, expressing it to others). The Risk-Monger has blogged on this quite frequently, whether it is about ignoring the moral consequences of organic living, the economic injustice of solar panels or the political manipulation of the science on climate change. And so it is for electric cars – we want to believe they are OK for the environment so we can feel good about ourselves, continue to consume and not make any real sacrifices (even WWF assures us how wonderful we are to buy them!)

What did this Norwegian university report conclude? It seems that when taking into account the elevated CO2 needed to produce an electric vehicle, there is no environmental advantage over a diesel car at 100,000 km. The CO2 advantage improves over 150,000 km of use, but that is assuming that the battery is not replaced, something the technology is far from ensuring today. And these results are based on the assumption that the source of electricity is not fossil-based. It gets worse. Where electric cars prove particularly nasty is in other environmental consequences of the production phase: namely the higher levels of human toxicity, freshwater eco-toxicity and eutrophication from the heavy metal pollution in the battery production. Ouch! May each person driving a Toyota Pious wear this as a badge of honour in their environmental feel-good factor.

Indeed, the Risk-Monger today is managing an “I-told-you-so” smile.

OK, this is some long-awaited research (and the same still needs to be done for solar panels), but as we know, in environmental debates, facts don’t matter. So how will the environmental lobbyists respond? Well that is easy. As this study comes from Norway, it must be funded by the oil and gas industry. Actually no, it is funded by the Norwegian Research Council under the E-Car Project. OK, never mind that as the study did not conclude that electric cars were actually bad and we can assume that this emerging technology will improve. Actually the report brought in considerations of the speed at which conventional power train technologies were improving. Maybe, as my initial scan suggests, they will just ignore this study and continue campaigning for electric cars. I am certain that more research will be commissioned by environmentalists and electric or hybrid producers, but will this research be objective? Will it include the CO2 emitted from the energy sources? Will this research include post-use recycling?

The Risk-Monger has his own questions for further research. Will this research take into account the amount of strain the charging of these vehicles will put on their proposed smart grid? Will this research consider the impact of increased mining for the battery production? Will this research consider the increased urban particulate matter (including carbon black) from tyre dust that electric vehicles, with a higher tyre burn rate, produce? The Norwegian study did not take these points into account and so if a deeper LCA were performed, it seems that the green cred of electric cars will be further diminished. Furthermore, will future studies consider whether we actually need to be producing more cars and rather, shouldn’t we be considering alternative forms of transportation? Ooops, we are not supposed to talk about the real sacrifices you would need to make to consider yourself as a green hero.

And this leads to my final question. Will Environmental NGOs like WWF finally stop promoting electric cars and come clean and tell the world that the path to decarbonisation they are lobbying for entails some serious sacrifice?

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  1. Riskmonger, I frequently read what you write because it is almost always enlightened, well-researched and well thought out. In this circumstance, however you seem to be the victim of some serious myopia.

    I do not doubt that the studies are fairly close to accurate and that the current environmental impact of electric vehicles may be worse than the best technology offered by diesel.

    At the same time, the difference in the age of these technologies is so great that it is a very poor comparison. It is a bit like criticizing a high-potential newcomer for not being as good as the seasoned professional in his prime.

    First, the necessary efficiencies and economies of scale on electric vehicles are far from exhausted. In fact, given the infancy of the technology, there are doubtless many that are not yet even discovered. The fact that an engine and battery are currently necessary and make the overall balance more negative will no doubt be solved. Moreover, the source of electricity used to charge the batteries is not necessarily the fault of the automobile manufacturers and naturally needs to be solved by enlightened policy that puts a price on the CO2 emitted by fossil fuel power generation.

    The electric vehicle industry is at its very beginnings and requires time to not only develop the technology to a more mature point, but also ensure the overall system from production, to performance to fuel source is better for the planet. In the short-term it might be the case that more efficient traditional vehicles can have a greater immediate impact. However, electric vehicles are clearly the best route to a zero-emission personal mobility system and the industry needs every incentive possible to make the investments needed to get there.

    So, although it may not be technically correct to have people who buy and drive these vehicles believe they are “greener than thou” for doing so in the immediate, their belief and desire to be green should have a long-term pay-off by ensuring adequate demand for further investments. And, no doubt, these conscientious individuals will eventually become more aware of the negatives of such vehicles and also put pressure on manufacturers and others to focus on those shortcomings you have so astutely pointed out.

    1. Thank you for your comment Samuel. There is no doubt that improvements in electric mobility will come (and they are badly needed). At the same time, our focus on reducing CO2 emissions in conventional power train technologies (especially diesel) are starting to make exponential gains. One point I need to see on the table is that we consider the amount of CO2 that goes into the production phase as well – CO2 is cumulative so what we can save today is worth a lot more than what we can save in 20 years. So should we be building and marketing so many electric CO2 bombs in the hope that in ten years, the vehicles will be more efficient? The green debate is skewed by subjective bias and non-compromise – couldn’t we accept that innovations in diesel power train technologies will lead to greater gains for the environment? Or are we affected by the same bias that influences other debates where the green lobby is demanding patience and investment in “renewables” technologies but refuse to consider investing in research in carbon capture and storage or next generation nuclear – both of those technologies look more promising for a decarbonising world but go against the grain of green bias (I am not even considering touching fracking in this debate!). Why not put all technologies on the table and consider the best quick win – and given the problems with electric cars at the moment, maybe more investment in research is needed, but stop allowing such ecological disasters on the road until then. In the meantime, start repricing cars to take into account their real impact.

      A more important point, put more articulately in the first blog: Don’t buy an electric car – is that we should not be building and buying so many cars – they are the greatest source of environmental pollution and a major cause of human health issues (and deaths) – and at present, more so for electric cars. As long as we continue to trick ourselves into thinking we can drive cars and think of ourselves as green (a fallacy WWF is promoting), we will not make progress.

  2. As mentioned in my previous post, I tend to agree with a signficant percentage of what you write, so I don’t find myself in a position to contradict most of that response. I am for employing all available technologies as possible short, medium and long-term solutions. We need them.

    I will take issue on one point which is when you write that cars should be repriced.

    This is a bit too far up the on the production chain as far as I am concerned. I do agree that technologies should be given an even playing field and left to “fight it out” in the marketplace. However, in this case, a carbon tax all along the supply chain would be the best way for this to happen. A diesel car might get points for lower upfront cost due to its lower manufacturing impact; whereas the fuel would then be much more expensive. The electric vehicle would have the reverse, but at the same time manufacturers would be strongly incentivized to work on the environmental impact of both technologies and consumers would be free to choose.

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