Electric Cars: Ignore the facts so we can feel good about ourselves


Posted by The Risk Monger on 08/10/12
Tags: Electric Cars CO2

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 thepolitical 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 WWFassures 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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