This article originally appeared on Inside Climate News. It is republished with permission. Sign up for their newsletter here.
Researchers who study the emissions of electric versus gasoline vehicles have gotten used to the occasional flare-up of the idea—often framed in a misleading way—that EVs are harmful because of emissions tied to mining and manufacturing of the cars.
This idea got fresh attention on Saturday with the publication of an opinion piece in the Guardian by comedian and actor Rowan Atkinson, who wrote that he felt “duped” by the promise that EVs are better for the environment. His comments were then amplified by stories from Fox Business and the New York Post, among others.
“Sadly, keeping your old petrol car may be better than buying an EV,” he wrote. “There are sound environmental reasons not to jump just yet.”
His conclusion is frustrating for people who do research on EVs and emissions because it’s a familiar trope of fossil-fuel-aligned groups that have a financial interest in slowing the transition to EVs, and it’s based on a misleading view of the data.
While it is correct to say that the production of an EV has higher emissions than that of a vehicle with an internal combustion engine, an EV makes up for that difference several times over by having much lower emissions during its time on the road. EVs even have an edge in places like Poland that rely heavily on fossil fuels to generate electricity.
A commonly cited 2020 study by Transport & Environment, a research and advocacy group, found that the “life cycle emissions” from an EV are on average three times less than those of a vehicle that runs on gasoline or diesel in the European Union. Life cycle emissions are a calculation of the total emissions related to a vehicle’s life, from the production of raw materials to the junkyard.
Here is a sampling of other research on the subject:
1. The International Council on Clean Transportation, a research and advocacy group, published a paper in 2021 showing that EVs have life cycle emissions that are 66% to 69% lower than those of comparable gasoline cars. And, this difference is going to grow as power grids reduce their use of fossil fuels.
2. Auke Hoekstra of Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands wrote a paper published in 2019 about the ways life cycle emissions for EVs are calculated and how these methods often underestimate the climate benefits of EVs.
3. A group of European researchers put together a report for the European Commission in 2020 that took a deep look at life cycle emissions and other environmental issues related to EVs, concluding that “new electric vehicles are expected to have significantly lower impacts on the climate compared to conventional combustion-engined vehicles.”
Hoekstra has become a leading debunker of pieces like the one Atkinson wrote, and he wrote a Twitter thread about the flaws in Atkinson’s reasoning.
“I’m not entirely convinced Atkinson is being honest here because he is very precise in cherry-picking all the anti-EV tropes,” Hoekstra said.
In an interview, Hoekstra said the idea that EVs are more harmful to the environment than internal combustion engines can do real damage to public perception of EVs, which can undermine the push to reduce emissions from transportation.
“We’re trying to take the world to a better place here,” Hoekstra said. “We’re really trying, and this sort of cranky nitwittery really makes it harder.”
He said a good rule of thumb is that an EV has a net benefit in terms of life cycle emissions compared to a gasoline vehicle after about 20,000 miles, and the benefit increases over time.
Inside Climate News contacted Atkinson to respond to the criticism that he was cherry-picking the evidence to present a misleading conclusion.
“Everyone cherry-picks evidence to support his or her thesis and I’m sure that your scientists and experts will be doing the same,” he said in an email. “My primary aim was to encourage debate, perhaps a more nuanced debate about the vastly complex issue of carbon emissions and the motor car than I have seen hitherto. The fact that you’re having your discussion at all is great news to me.”
The actor is best known for his roles in the television series Mr. Bean and Blackadder. He said in the Guardian article that his first university degree was in electrical and electronic engineering, and he later got a master’s degree in control systems. He describes himself as an early adopter of EVs, having bought a hybrid 18 years ago and an all-electric model 9 years ago.
“Electric vehicles may be a bit soulless, but they’re wonderful mechanisms: fast, quiet and, until recently, very cheap to run,” Atkinson wrote. “But increasingly, I feel a little duped. When you start to drill into the facts, electric motoring doesn’t seem to be quite the environmental panacea it is claimed to be.”
He said he was responding, in part, to a proposal in the United Kingdom to ban the sale of new gasoline and diesel cars in 2030.
Hoekstra said it’s especially damaging that the anti-EV message is coming from a well-liked celebrity.
“If he was a cranky old professor, in a way that’s easier to deal with, because then it becomes sort of scientists debating him or each other,” he said.
But he’s used to seeing these same objections being raised, part of what he calls the “bullshit bingo” of talking points that are often intentionally misleading.
That said, there are legitimate concerns about the environmental harm of mining for materials to make EV batteries, and about the high costs and heavy weight of the vehicles.
Hoekstra acknowledges those concerns. The mistake, he said, is to take those issues and make the leap to saying that the world should stick with gasoline or should slow down in the transition to EVs.
This is because many of the problems with EVs can be reduced with advances in batteries, improvements in battery recycling, and other efforts that are underway. But there is no substantive fix for the environmental harm from the production of fossil fuels and burning those fuels in engines.
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