Wall Street Journal Op-Ed: Electric Cars Dirtier than Gas Cars
What if we’re totally wrong about this electric car thing, and in fact they’re worse for the environment than conventional gas cars, even SUVs? That’s the provocative claim of long-time anti-environmental gadfly Bjorn Lomborg in a March 11 op-ed for the Wall Street Journal.
Lomborg has been down this road before. He’s the author of The Skeptical Environmentalist and Cool It, the latter suggesting that “many of the elaborate and expensive actions now being considered to stop global warming will cost hundreds of billions of dollars, are often based on emotional rather than strictly scientific assumptions, and may very well have little impact on the world's temperature.”
The Energy Equation
Now he’s saying something similar about electric cars, basically that making them (and their batteries) consumes far more energy and produces more carbon dioxide emissions than the same process for conventional cars. Predictably, his report got heralded on Fox News. But Lomborg’s numbers are hotly disputed. Here's the Fox video:
Felix Kramer, founder of DrivingElectric.org, says that "Lomborg's writings on EVs are a whining sideline to his main interest, climate change, where he tries to spread confusion through misinformation and disinformation. Rebutting his specifics is somewhat beside the point." But Lomborg can be convincing, and backs up his charges with numbers, so into the specifics we will go.
Building a gas car produces 17 percent of its lifetime CO2 emissions; the electric car generates nearly 50 percent that way, Lomborg says, citing a study by the Journal of Industrial Ecology. The EV produces 30,000 pounds of CO2 in manufacturing, the gas car 14,000 pounds.
Lower Production Numbers
Luke Tonachel of the Natural Resources Defense Council says that other studies assign much lower production CO2 to the EV. An analysis by Argonne National Laboratory, for instance, says the EV will emit roughly a third of the emissions cited by Lomborg. Further, Tonachel says, “Vehicle production emissions are still a relatively small percentage of what the car will produce in its lifetime. Use emissions significantly outweigh production emissions.” Most analyses I’ve seen put production emissions at 10 percent or less than the total.
The Journal of Industrial Ecology study that is the basis of Lomborg’s report aims to point out that there are reduced benefits from operating EVs on a coal grid. That’s obviously true. But the Journal story also concludes that “the combination of EVs with clean energy sources would potentially allow for drastic reductions of many transportation environmental impacts, especially in terms of climate change, air quality, and preservation of fossil fuels.”
Lomborg also says that when electricity generation is considered, EVs emit the equivalent of six ounces of CO2 per mile. But gas cars produce 12 ounces per mile.
Looking at Lifecycles
Lomborg does finally get around to looking at lifetime emissions, but he sets up something of a straw man by basing his gas-cars-are-better numbers on an EV driven just 50,000 total miles. Get it to 90,000 miles, he admits, and the EV is ahead.
Max Baumhefner, also of NRDC, says that the 50,000-mile EV “is fanciful. Both the Chevy Volt and Nissan LEAF electric powertrains are backed by 100,000-mile warranties, and there’s no reason to believe they won’t be driven much further.” He cites older Toyota RAV4s that have logged well over 100,000 miles.
A study by Dr. Deepak Rajagopal, an environmental economist at UCLA, and co-author Guillaume Majeau-Bettez estimates an EV driven 90,000 miles and powered on “average European electricity” would have 20 to 24 percent emissions reduction. The chart below is based on his numbers, if the California grid is used for charging.
Baumhefner also points out that the EV’s environmental profile improves each year, as the grid gets cleaner. “The benefits of driving on electricity will only increase in the future as more and more coal plants are retired and replaced by cleaner and renewable resources,” he says.
Finally, Baumhefner points out that Lomborg cherry-picked the lowest-possible number, $5, for the economic damage done by an extra ton of carbon dioxide. He uses that $5 to conclude, “An optimistic assessment of the avoided CO2 associated with an electric car will allow the owner to spare the world about $44 in climate damage.”
In fact, says Baumhefner, the federal study Lomborg cites offers four possible values, and $5 is the lowest one—it also cites $21, $35 and $65. “By most accounts, the ‘best’ estimate [of global warming impact] is at least four times higher than Lomborg’s figure,” Baumhefner says.
Fun with numbers. Lomborg has a long paper trail with this kind of thing. His conclusions usually get vigorously disputed, and that’s the case here as well.
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