Are electric cars any good? Lomborg says no, but he's wrong.

John Stossel, writing at Real Annoying Clear Politics, (which is not a terrible place except for John Stossel) quotes some guy named Bjorn Lomborg about electric cars, thusly:

Do environmentalists even care about measuring costs instead of just assuming benefits? We spend $7 billion to subsidize electric cars. Even if America reached the president’s absurd 2015 goal of “a million electric cars on the road” (we won’t get close), how much would it delay warming of the Earth?

“One hour,” says Lomborg. “This is a symbolic act.”

There are a lot of reasons that this is wrong. First, cars are not nearly the problem that buildings are. The vast majority of carbon released from fossil stores into the atmosphere (as CO2, mainly) has to do with buildings … heating them, cooling them, lighting them, and running the stuff we do in them. Vehicles are important but they are a smaller contribution. But they are still important. Anti-Earth people like Stossel and Lomborg seem to have an extra bit of hate for electric cars, and I think the reason for that is that the widespread deployment of electric cars can actually help with the buildings. One thing we need to make a smart grid work well is a lot of batteries. If there were charging stations at both home and work and most people who drove at all drove electric cars, the top 20 percent or so of the battery storage in all those cars (in the US there are hundreds of millions of vehicles) could be used to allow individuals to express their Liberties in the Free Market of Electricity, storing and supplying surplus juice at a profit. If you do this right you can probably drive your car for free this way, depending on your driving patterns.

Also, this is a very difficult number to calculate and is probably one of those things where you can make up any number and then find an equation that equals it.

Cars? Whose cars? Cars around the planet (one billion or so) or cars in the US (a quarter of that)? Which cars? The lower or higher milage ones? Who is driving them and how far? If we are only replacing hybrids, you wouldn’t get much. If you are replacing Ford F3000s, you’d get a hella lot. Also, these people are anti-global warming science. If you are anti global warming science, are you even allowed to calculate things using — global warming science? Can you insist that climate change is not real, or not related to CO2, or that important things like climate sensitivity (how much heat arises from how much CO2, simply put) are not known or not properly calculated, and still use those mathematical relationships to make up some dumb argument like this one?

No. You can’t.

Anyway, it probably can be calculated but I’d rather see the calculations done by someone who knows what they are talking about, so I asked atmospheric scientist and energy expert John Abraham about this and here’s what he said.

If you put 1 million clean cars on the road and have them last 15 years before removing them, and if you take the typical emissions of a vehicle (5700 kg CO2 per year), you have saved 8.6 e10 kg of CO2 in the 15 years. Now lets assume you don’t put any more clean vehicles on the road. How many hours is this worth of global emissions?

We emit about 36 billion tons of CO2 per year which is about 4.1e9 kg CO2 per hour.

Therefore, those cars, over their lifetime, would have saved 21 hours of emissions from all CO2 sources.

So, he was only off by 2100%

In addition, I asked my friend J. Drake Hamilton at Fresh Energy if she had a handy link to an article somewhere that would address this question, the question of the efficacy of electric cars and such, and she game met the following. Thanks J.

Clearing the Air on Electric Cars and Pollution

A new study from North Carolina State purportedly shows that electric vehicles won’t reduce pollution in the long term. A closer look at detailed results reveals that the study actually shows the opposite: that higher electric vehicle adoption can significantly reduce carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide emissions. That’s right–despite the confusing spin–the North Carolina state study confirms what the vast majority of studies have shown: electric cars are a key part of our longer-term strategy to cut carbon and smog-forming pollutants.


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36 thoughts on “Are electric cars any good? Lomborg says no, but he's wrong.

  1. I have two concerns about the alleged benefits of electric cars. First, most people who get them will not be charging their batteries with home solar arrays, but with grid power that often comes from coal burning, i.e. even dirtier than oil. Second, it’s been said that half the lifetime energy cost of a car is sunk in its manufacture – though obviously this varies depending upon gas mileage. If your car is at the end of its functional “life” and you would have replaced it with a new gas-powered car but instead choose a more efficient electric car, that’s a win. If you sell a used vehicle that’s still usable to buy a new electric, that may not be a net win; you’ve caused a new vehicle to be made sooner than would otherwise have been necessary, while your old vehicle either gets prematurely scrapped or is sold to a new user and continues to burn gas.

    Electric cars seem to me to be a an attempt by the environmentally concerned to perpetuate what the admittedly hyperobnoxious peak oil writer James Howard Kunstler likes to deride as the “happy motoring lifestyle.” Let’s all just get electric cars, and for a little longer we don’t have to question the paradigm of zoning regulations, cultural expectations, and neglect or outright suppression of public transportation by which it has become necessary for every household to spend many thousands of dollars on an individual transportation device if they want access to jobs or groceries. Instead of saying “let’s try to make these costly devices a little less destructive”, we should be saying “let’s try to make it easier, at least in urban areas, for people to exist without these costly devices.”

  2. The issue of manufacture is a bit like asking electric cars to dance backwards and in high heels. Non electric cars are also manufactured. It makes sense to replace an older car that might then be scrapped with an electric car, but people’s cary buying activities are not necessarily that sensible. Personally, I’d like to see a bunch of incentives and subsidies go into buying electric cars in a particular region where there are plans for smartening up the grid, combined with a Cash for Clunkers program. The incentives would be there for everyone but there would be an extra push for switching over the lower mileage cars more quickly.

    Also, ideally, one would swap out cars for public transit. But how do you do that?

    We just got a new car because we needed a new car … the old cars were not serving in my wife’s long commute. We actually came up with a better plan first; move to near where she works. But our home is “under water” and we are not rich (despite my blogging about climate change, no one has paid me piles of money yet for some reason). So we simply needed a new car. There is no public transit option for her at all, not even close. So we got a Prius, semi-electric. So we are not perpetuting the happy motoring livestyle, just continuing along in the trap we are in until we can do something else, but using half the gas.

    Regarding where electricity comes from, despite the dirtiness of coal and the transmission costs, it is still more efficient to make electricity in the next county and use it to run a car than to cause hundreds of thousands of tiny explosions to make the vehicle go forward. Also, the people who I know who have fully electric cars buy their electricity from wind where possible (though one also generates at home).

    Overall, concentrated urban dwelling with non-car alternatives to everything is certainly something that has to be done. But it is easier and actually doable to replace a good part of our motor fleet with electric than to redo human settlement patterns. We should basically switch to electric cars wholesale and at the same time do everything else.

    Generally speaking I’m very unhappy about arguments that we should not do a particular obvious doable within reach thing because maybe somewhere down the line someone will figure out how to do a currently impossible out of reach thing. That’s Kunstler’s problem only easier: Instead of perpetuating the happy motoring lifestyle but feeling a bit better about it by doing something it is perpetuating the lifestyle without any cost or change in energy use and feeling good about it because you convince yourself that there really isn’t anything one can do anyway.

  3. 21-fold assuming a 15 year life cycle puts Lomborg in the right ballpark on an annual basis/. He is more misleading than wrong.

    The purposes of electric cars include – 1) to allow development of non-carbon alternatives to liquid fuels for transport 2) to reduce dependence on petro-states 3) load balancing 4) deploying and distributing batteries 5) reducing vehicle weight and volatilty, thus reducing highway risk and road maintenance 6) reduction of conventional pollution and morbidity/mortality therefrom and 7) immediate direct replacement of fossil emissions.

    All but 2 and 6 directly improve the carbon emissions picture considerably. Considering only #7, and playing games with numbers in the usual polemical ways, Lomborg’s claim can be justified.

  4. Greg: “The issue of manufacture is a bit like asking electric cars to dance backwards and in high heels.”

    I’d pay good money to see that 8^D!

  5. I thought Jane’s comment was excellent.

    There’s been some skepticism published in the IEEE Spectrum, as well as discussion from both sides since that article was published. It’s not a simple matter.

    When a car’s batteries are worn beyond a certain point, apparently they can continue to be used in less demanding occupations. Some parking lots in Southern California are putting up photovoltaic canopies: shade for everyone and juice for the EV’s. It’s hard to say much about an electric car’s carbon footprint when the technology is changing so rapidly.

  6. IMHO the core argument offered by Stossel and Lomborg comes down to their saying that electric cars are not, in an of themselves, the complete solution and conflating that with being useless.

    It is a very common tactic for conservatives everywhere. Science using evolution don’t have all the answers so evolution must be useless. Climate science can’t nail down the exact time when global warming will cross any particular line so climate science must be useless.

    If the current state of the science can’t answer every question immediately, accurate to eight significant digits, it just isn’t good enough for them and the entire subject must be still open for speculation. For them science is either settled and chiseled in stone, in which case you listen to the experts, or it is still a free-for-all, where nothing is settled where everyone gets to speculate and everyone gets to guess.

  7. There is a case to be made that there are serious environmental problems with manufacturing electric cars — but that’s the same problem we have with any high technology product, and producing more electric cars isn’t going to make any difference there, because the high tech in an SUV is just as much a problem.

    I’m all for encouraging electric car use, and expanding public transit as well — in fact, if I had my druthers, I’d want to see regional rail re-established in places where it isn’t now (in many Midwestern towns and cities the old right of ways are actually still there — when the trolleys and such were eliminated nobody ever transferred the ROW, so it just sort of sits there unused).

    A dream of mine would be to see the old long-distance rail routes re-established — right now it takes longer to get from Chicago to NYC by about three to six hours than it did in 1960. The trip from NYC to Raleigh is longer too — the schedule from 1947 cuts off three to four hours from the current one. You can’t tell me the rail technology was better when my parents were born. I know few Europeans that fly the distance from Paris to Lyon, or even Paris to Prague. But we have people driving (and losing more time) or flying (even worse, carbon-wise) for much shorter trips than that. The fuel efficiency gains (and carbon non-emission) from eliminating even 10 percent of the air travel we do and replacing it with rail are pretty impressive, especially when you figure in the carbon costs of refining the crude.

    Get the gas car off the road for the short trips and minimize them for the longer ones, and the total carbon footprint drops a lot.

    One other bit: there IS a differential impact of electric cars when you take into account where power comes from in your state. But again I’d say that isn’t specific to electric cars, and at least with EVs you get the benefit of not pouring more CO2 into the air as you drive.

  8. “Generally speaking I’m very unhappy about arguments that we should not do a particular obvious doable within reach thing because maybe somewhere down the line someone will figure out how to do a currently impossible out of reach thing.”

    I agree with you that that kind of attitude is a problem. However, I don’t agree that improving public transportation is impossible, or even that it is less feasible than rapidly replacing a large part of our car fleet with new infrastructure – or perhaps even than changing laws regarding mortgages so that the burden doesn’t fall entirely on the working classes when a deliberately inflated housing bubble inevitably collapses.

    Your purchase of a new Prius was wise and reasonable given the situation you are stuck in. Even if you’re non-materialistic enough to give up your house, you can’t without facing financial ruin because you’re underwater. To avoid that state of ruin your wife must work, and to keep the job she must have a reliable car. All very sensible. What I think you don’t always take into account in your fulminations against those who don’t care about or don’t act against climate change is that tens of millions of Americans are in that same situation, but closer to the edge and with less financial and social capital to cushion any falls. They can neither move nor buy a new Prius – but if there was a bus to ride that didn’t take three hours a day and cost a fortune for families with children, or if affordable jitney service was legal, they might well use it. Personally, I can walk home from work because I am able to live less than two miles from work. But I recognize that between economic limitations and zoning laws, not everyone is free to do so.

  9. “I don’t agree that improving public transportation is impossible,”

    I don’t agree with that either. But I live in the Twin Cities, which had only a crappy bus system 17 years ago when they started to put money into improving transit system, and we will by the end of two or three years from now have a rail based system that will serve something like 10% of the population. It’s great that it is happening but it is taking many decades to make small improvements.

    This isn’t a difference in feasible. Both solutions are feasible. But we are quickly running out of time and simply have to do both full steam.

    I would love to see changes in how home ownership is managed, such as tax breaks for living near where you work, that sort of thing. What I really would prefer is to see us build entirely new settlements.

    Oh, I understand about being close to the edge. It took us a long time to be able to do very very little, and there isn’t much more we can do at this time. I am very much taking that into account. I am not a rich, or even middle class, person living in a bubble. As far as public transit goes, I’ve strongly supported every initiative.

    We actually had a problem here in Minneapolis for a while where there was a serious looking proposal on the table that was totally lame and impossible and I think it distracted a lot of activists who might otherwise have been pushing for actual solutions.

    The next leg of the rail system is the hardest one to get in place because it goes sort kinda near rich people’s nice houses. The previous leg, just opening shortly, wen through working class and poor neighborhoods, and the construction put lots of small skin of your teeth businesses out of business. No problem getting that one through.

    And I think the Twin Cities is similar to a lot of American cities but here we have a more progressive populous than average (in the cities) and this is the best we can do so far. Not nearly enough.

  10. I’ve spent considerable time living in a city where expansion of public transportation is hindered because people in well-to-do white neighborhoods, who can all afford their own SUVs, specifically don’t want poor/black people finding it easy to get to their neighborhoods. But they expect the nurses’ aides in their high-class old folks’ homes to get to work on time somehow. Nothing is going to happen for the better in this country as long as we keep treating each other as enemies.

  11. I’m not at all fond of the argument that EVs are “likely” to be charged from coal or gas burning power stations quite apart from the “dancing backwards and in high heels”. Where I live we’ve gone from nil power from wind to 30% power from wind in 10 years. Had an EV been available 5 years ago and someone purchased it then, by the end of its 15 year life it wouldn’t have been using much fossil burning power anyway (seeing as we’ve also had 25% of households instal solar panels in that time, any such vehicle might’ve had nil CO2 from the point of installation onwards).

    But it really is just another argument in the tattered ragbag of arguments that can all be dismissed as the perfect is the enemy of the good.

    1. Not my job to prove his merit. But in any event, I was speaking generally against the tide of anti-do-anything-about-it-niks.

      But yes, being down on solutions is the new denailism, now that denying that the earth has warmed has become so dumb-looking, and denying that humans have anything to do with it has become so foolish.

      And, yes, denying the realities of the science and engineering of both the problem and the solution is pretty serious stuff. Don’t do that.

  12. Don’t, on the other hand, be too hasty to presume that people who question the likely benefit – or scalability – of specific proposed actions are “denying” or “anti-do-anything-about-it-niks.” Some proposed actions to reduce consumption, like using corn ethanol as auto fuel, may actually increase total consumption, and it is not always immediately evident when proponents of these actions are self-interested or honestly mistaken. Hopefully, we can all take what actions seem feasible and sensible for us personally, perhaps without demanding incontrovertible evidence of their efficacy, but also without bashing those who have more questions.

  13. Please read the post, though. I made a particular point that you have been studiously ignoring. If we need corn ethanol, then we should be making it using methods that don’t use fossil carbon fuels. Lomborg does not have questions. He has, it seems, an agenda counter to taking effective action.

  14. I read your post. It doesn’t mention corn ethanol, but if we were to try to produce corn in today’s quantities without fossil fuels, we would need a rearrangement of society that makes moving everyone out of burbclaves (cf. discussion on other thread) look simple. As for “studiously ignoring”, I had been doing you the courtesy of ignoring the fact that since (1) there is nowhere near enough total solar and wind energy produced in America to equal our consumption of energy for private transportation, and (2) many utilities offer only coal power or a program whereby you spend extra for “green offsets” but are still yourself getting coal power, and (3) even most people who can buy new cars can’t install a home solar or wind power setup sufficient to feed their car year-round, it is inevitably true that a lot of those electric cars will be plugged into mainstream utilities and will be, in effect, coal-burning cars. If you want to calculate the actual net environmental benefit, if any, of a proposed expenditure, you can’t handwave the costs away by saying that the cars “should” be running on sunshine if in fact that will often not be possible.

  15. Jane –

    If we are going to reduce CO2 emissions by the >95% required , then it goes without saying that we will stop burning coal as well as oil. I personally favor a nuclear+renewable grid; i.e. zero-carbon electricity – in which case the emissions of EVs also drop to zero.

    Corn ethanol is a bit daft, to be honest., it would be far better to simply build so much electric capacity that we always supply more than the grid needs (any zero-carbon technique or combination thereof will do), and divert the surplus into the synthesis of practical alternative fuels, such as Ammonia, Methanol or even hydrocarbons; the US Navy is looking to implement this in new Aircraft Carriers, so they can make their own jet fuel using surplus electricity from their reactors.

  16. I highly doubt that in the next few decades humanity will either build enough zero-carbon electric capacity to sustainably supply all our needs or reduce even our fossil-specific CO2 emissions by 95% … voluntarily. The more pessimistic predictions regarding peaking of extraction rates for various resources and the potential consequences suggest that something close to the latter just might happen involuntarily.

    Please note that that’s not, as others’ strawmen have claimed, an argument for doing nothing individually because it’s obvious that American society does not have the will to drastically curtail its own consumption and accept a sort of national voluntary poverty. Au contraire, if involuntary poverty turns out to be in our future, you will be darned thankful that when you were still young[er] you weaned yourself off a life of processed foods and imported vegetables and never walking more than a block or two and that only in perfect weather.

  17. The other thing that no-one ever includes in these arguments is that it takes a lot of electricity to manufacture petrol, about 4.5kWh per gallon.

    So to make a gallon of petrol consumes enough electricity to drive my Nissan Leaf about 20 miles. (UK gallons, your mileage may vary.)

  18. It’s worth noting that John Abraham’s numbers completely ignore the power needed to generate the electricity to power a car, which by and large comes from coal at night. I would also add that even Lomborg’s numbers ignore the fact (and it is, per the EIA, a fact) that marginal power production at night by and large comes from coal fired power plants.

    In other words, electric cars are not 21x better than Lomborg says. They are twice as bad, plus or minus.

    1. Yes, it does in fact require electricity to power an electric car, and it requires gas to power a gas car.

      But your basic argument is invalid for two reasons. First, in a sane system, cars would be charged wherever and whenever they are parked, preferentially using clean sources. You drive your car to work, you plug it in, your place of work has solar panels.

      Second, the basic argument that either working backwards through manufacture, shipping, etc or working downwards from sources of energy will include the release of fossil carbon means that we should not use these technologies is simply wrong. We have to have a grid that produces electricity without releasing the carbon. Your argument suggests that we should not use an electric car until that is implemented. The same exact argument can be used, and has been used, to say we should not put solar panels on the roof of our houses. The solar panels were made in an industry (presumably) that released carbon. The panels were shipped to the home using a vehicle that released fossil carbon. Etc. These arguments are all wrong. We have to switch away from the use of fossil carbon, and in the case of vehicles, to electricity, in all ways that are reasonable. Arguing that the system is imperfect an therefore should not be implemented is nothing other than a form of denialism.

      So, you can’t count CO2 behind “clean energy” and ignore the fact that non-clean energy also uses CO2, the latter being stuck with it the former providing potential to not use it. And you can’t argue against implementation of a clean energy system that has CO2 releasing connections ever, because all of those CO2 releasing connections must also be addressed.

      Most of which I say in the post.

  19. Also, widespread use of electric cars and implementation of a smart grid will provide a huge battery storage capability.

  20. Great article. Thanks. I linked to it here: I think by far the biggest benefit of electric cars is generally being missed.

    We need to change from fossil fuels. Dictating this would be a regulatory and efficiency debacle. The market has to be part of it. Making electric cars viable moves us from perhaps our biggest single impediment to removing our “addiction” (as George W Bush called it in his 2006 State of the Union address) to oil. Namely, that our cars have to run on gasoline.

    It really has little to nothing to do with saving a little per car, but everything to do with shifting our energy patterns over, and in a way that also promotes growth and benefits, at the same time.

    Bottom line, combustion engines are extremely inefficient. Electric cards are a few TIMES more efficient. This is an extraordinary difference. The electricity has to be produced, and with many conventional means (and transmission loss) some of that gain is lost, but there is still a significant overall gain (an enormous one when charging is overnight excess electric power,which could often be the case with cars), and one that offers tremendous upward improvement as energy moves to more localized, multi, independent need fed sources, and one that electric cars will drive, rather than having it be a wasteful, government “research” driven abstraction.

    I doubt Lomborg, who isn’t qualified to give an opinion on a rat’s behind, yet who is some sort of international expert, knows any of this,

  21. Lomborg is neither economist nor scientist.

    He is a media-seeking opinionator with a very sparse publication record and whose contributions are correspondingly of very low value.

  22. Just about no one — pro or con electric vehicles or pro or con climate change — ever brings into the conversation an enormously significant reason to transition away from fossil fuels: OUR HEALTH!! We’re talking zero tailpipe emissions that will reduce respiratory illness and cancer, and lower everyone’s healthcare costs. Amen!

  23. A better argument, Wayne: Burning fossil fuels is setting a match to a VERY important raw material needed to make medicines, fertilizers, plastics, chemicals, etc.

    We need THOSE things much, much more than we need hydrocarbons as a liquid fuel. (Actually, gasoline is nothing more than a chemical battery, and one that we cannot recharge…)

  24. A minor point but one I see a lot and want to correct. You write that “First, cars are not nearly the problem that buildings are. The vast majority of carbon released from fossil stores into the atmosphere (as CO2, mainly) has to do with buildings … heating them, cooling them, lighting them, and running the stuff we do in them”.

    This is not correct. The transportation industry is responsible for approx. 30% of the energy use in the United States. Any efforts to reduce energy use in the transportation field will have a major effect on GHG emissions because at this time virtually all of the engines used in the transportation system are internal combustion so almost all that energy use is from fossil fuels..

  25. Why not install trays of plants ontop of the roof of each car?
    That way your C02 nonsense is taken care of.
    Of course it dosnt cover the companies who buy the right to increase emissions, as long as you have money you can create as much emissions as you like according to UN mandates.
    You could also mandate each high rise to perhaps also grow plants on and around each building, it would be kind of neat looking having a city covered in foliage..the Empire state building mast having a perhaps a Pittosporum instead..

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