There is currently a twitter argument happening, along with a bit of a blogging swarm, over a chimera of a remark made by John Stossle and Bjorn Lomborg. They made the claim that a million electric cars would have no benefit with resect to Carbon emissions. The crux of the argument is that there is a Carbon cost to manufacturing and running electric cars. When we manufacture anything, we emit Carbon, and when we make electricity to run the cars, we emit Carbon, etc. etc.
Lomborg is wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. But here I want to focus on one aspect of why he is wrong that applies generally to this sort of topic.
My point is very simple, really. We can take any green and clean technology, such as making Ethanol from corn (to replace gasoline produced from fossil fuels), or building windmills, or running electric cars on juice produced in coal plants, and so on, and count the fossil Carbon released by the process against the savings of Carbon by the process. But that is wrong. The reason it is wrong is that we need to keep the Carbon in the ground. If there is fossil Carbon being released by a coal plant that is running, ultimately, electric cars (or buses or trains) than there is a savings for the simple reason that running vehicles with electricity is a) more inherently efficient than using countless tiny explosions of fossil fuel, and b) almost always uses a mix of non-fossil-carbon energy sources such as wind power, hydro, nuclear, and solar. But that is not the point. The point is that ultimately we have to change the energy source from coal and natural gas to other sources. When we see a variable in the Carbon savings for a given technology that involves releasing fossil carbon, we have to hunt down that source and change it to non-fossil energy production. We need to build the electric cars in plants that are run on non-fossil energy, and use materials that are obtained, shipped, and processed with non-fossil energy, and run the vehicles on electricity made with non-fossil sources.
And increasingly, this is happening. If you have a plug in EV car now, there is an increasing number of places where you can plug the thing in and get non-fossil fuel juice to charge it up. This of course is developing too slowly. Every park and ride lot, the big giant parking lot at the mall, and your garage, should all have solar cells on the roof to provide at least some of the energy used to charge cars that plug in for some juice. Individual home owners should opt, where possible, to buy wind generated energy over fossil fuel generated energy. And so on.
The argument that “you can’t do this thing to avoid using fossil fuels because the thing uses fossil fuels” is countered by the argument that “if you are using fossil fuels than you need to find a way to not use fossil fuels.” The entire argument that the use of fossil fuels is involved in the non-use of fossil fuels is real, but temporary, and is really nothing other than an argument to not use fossil fuels in ALL areas we are currently using them, eventually.