Rowan Atkinson causes EV experts to roll their eyes.
On 3 June, the Guardian published a much-discussed opinion piece by Rowan Atkinson (of Mr Bean fame). The article is about his growing skepticism of electric vehicles and their claim to be more environmentally friendly than traditional combustion engine vehicles. It received significant backlash from technology experts and scientists. So much so that on 8 June, the Guardian posted a “fact checking” article that debunks all of Atkinson’s claims.
You may be wondering why on earth the Guardian would get Atkinson of all people to write a piece on EVs. It seems he anticipated this question, telling us in the second sentence that he has a degree in electrical and electronic engineering and a master’s in control systems. He is also a known petrol head. He owns 10 cars, to the value of an estimated $15.2 million which makes me wonder whether it is not perhaps in his own best interests to argue that we should keep petrol cars around. This is not intended as an ad hominem attack, merely an invitation to approach his article through a critical lens. When a piece receives as much backlash as this one, it is important that we look at the context. We should be asking who wrote the article? What could their motives have been? Who are the responders to the article and what are their credentials?
The author of the fact-checking article that the Guardian published in response to Atkinson’s piece is Dr Simon Evans. Evans is the deputy editor and senior policy editor at Climate Brief, a respected publication focused on climate and environmental issues. He holds a PhD in biochemistry and has received an impressive array of accolades for his journalism. The tone of Evans’ response article is respectful but exasperated.
His exasperation is warranted. The claims that Atkinson makes and the ‘facts’ he uses to support these claims is truly a bad case of beating a dead horse. In Evans’ words: “Atkinson repeats a series of repeatedly debunked talking points, often used by those seeking to delay action on the climate crisis”. In another response piece in the Guardian, Ben Lane, who has spent 20 years working in the EV world, first in policy and then industry, lays it out plainly:
“The long-running fight over whether electric or petrol/diesel engines generate more emissions during their lifecycle, […] is in fact all but over”. He cites a number of peer-reviewed studies published over many years that all arrive, consistently, at the same conclusion. In this electric vs petrol fight, “EVs win.”
EVs have proven time and again to be more environmentally friendly
Now, at the risk of adding more fuel to the fire, let’s take a quick look at what Atkinson said and at why he is well and truly out of touch,
At first, Atkinson says, he was very excited about EVs, but he has come to feel that the environmental benefits of EVs are overblown: “When you start to drill into the facts, electric motoring doesn’t seem to be quite the environmental panacea it is claimed to be.” His contention is that while EVs do indeed have zero exhaust emissions, the manufacturing process is much heavier on greenhouse gas emissions than traditional ICE vehicles. This is largely due to the energy it takes to make lithium-ion batteries. These batteries are not only energy-intensive to manufacture; they are extremely heavy and are only estimated to last about 10 years. He acknowledges that we are trying to develop a greener way to power EVs, such as with hydrogen fuel. But, he counters, these developments are years away.
Another issue, he says, is that we have a “fast fashion” car culture. On average people keep their cars for only around three years, despite the fact that they can have a 30 year life span if properly taken care of. This is terribly wasteful; “an outrageously profligate use of the world’s natural resources”, in Atkinson’s words. And so, he concludes, EVs are not the magic solution to green transport that we are told they are. Instead of spending billions manufacturing lithium-ion battery-powered cars, what we should rather do is use the already manufactured 1.5bn cars that exist worldwide, try to lower their polluting effect, and use them less frequently.
As the many respondents to this article have pointed out, the most glaring problem with Atkinson’s argument is that his central and most damning claim, that EVs are ultimately more emissions-heavy than combustion-engine cars when manufacturing is taken into account, is false. Evans explains that when the entire life cycle of an EV and an ICE vehicle, “from the extraction of oil or mining of lithium for batteries through to actually driving the cars”, are compared, EVs have proven time and again to be more environmentally friendly.
In his article, Atkinson refers to research conducted by Volvo that shows that the emissions of producing EVs is 70% higher than their ICE counterparts. This is an alarming statistic if true. It is, however, not true. Many of the finer details in the Volvo study have proven to be highly questionable. Even so, it can’t be denied that, while the Volvo statistics are inflated, the production of batteries does emit significantly higher CO2 than manufacturing your average ICE vehicle. But the amount of CO2 emitted in this production still pales in comparison to the emissions from fuelling petrol and diesel cars. The Guardian cites an analysis by the UK Government (based on findings by Carbon Brief) that “BEVs [battery electric vehicles] are expected to reduce GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions by 65% compared to a petrol car today, and this rises to 76% by 2030.”
The obvious caveat is that if you are charging your EV with dirty energy then the benefits get smaller. (This is exactly where Zero Carbon Charge come in!) And in the same vein, when batteries are manufactured in factories or regions that are powered by renewable energy, the CO2 emissions in the production process are obviously far lower. In Europe, China, and America, the carbon footprint of EVs continues to drop as manufacturing relies less on fossil fuel and more on renewable energy. In countries like Norway and France, where most of the electricity grid is powered by clean energy, the disparity between the lifetime carbon emissions of EVs versus petrol cars is massive. That is to say, statistics that compare EVs to petrol cars will differ largely across regions and countries, depending on how their energy is sourced and how their batteries are manufactured.
Atkinson also totally ignores the fact that batteries are already being recycled. According to Auke Hoekstra from Eindhoven University of Technology who responded to Atkinson’s article on Twitter: batteries are being recycled “with extraction rates recovering over 95% of the metals from used battery packs which included lithium, cobalt, nickel and copper.” This is called “non-extractive mining” which will “create a closed loop system for EV manufacturing”. Atkinson is absolutely right to say that the battery manufacturing process is very energy intensive but the solution is not to give up on EVs. It is to make the manufacturing process greener, and this is already happening.
His other arguments against EVs are even easier to debunk—so much so that they seem a bit ridiculous. Regarding the weight of the batteries, EVs will actually be lighter than combustion cars long before 2030. And the batteries outlast the lifetime of the car. In fact, “EVs do around five times more kilometres over their lifetime than ICE vehicles”, according to technology researcher, Tony Seba, in an interview with The Driven. There are also countless reasons why Atkinson’s appeal to hydrogen and “synthetic fuel” is misguided, (lack of efficiency and terrible cost effectiveness for starters). And when it comes to Atkinson’s claim that people only tend to drive their new cars for three years, it is striking that he doesn’t mention the secondhand market. It is also a bit rich coming from the owner of 10 cars…
EVs versus ICE
All this being said, I think it’s essential to be realistic about the overall environmental benefits of EVs. To compare EVs and ICE vehicles just in terms of their carbon output after manufacturing, i.e. when they are actually on the road, gives a skewed picture of the environmental superiority of EVs. To deny or ignore this is to be deceptive and obfuscating. In that sense, Atkinson is right. Yes, the carbon emissions in the manufacturing of batteries is high. But improvements are already being made in this regard and even as things stand today, the lifetime emissions of EVs is still lower than their combustion-engine counterparts. Three times lower on average, in fact. With a greener electricity grid and improvements in non-extractive mining, both the manufacturing and charging component of EVs will only improve and their total carbon emissions will keep decreasing.
Even so, it would still be wrong to paint EVs as a magical solution to the climate crisis. The transportation sector contributes about 24% of global CO2 emissions, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). Phasing out ICE vehicles is an important step in lowering that number and EVs can help make that happen. I feel strongly, however, that what we really need to do is improve and increase public transport. Ideally we would have no cars on the road at all. This would be a far more efficient way to decrease the negative environmental impacts of the transportation sector and has been given hopelessly too little attention and resources. For now, though, especially in countries like South Africa, that goal remains in the distant future. There will be cars on the road for the foreseeable future, and, for the good of the planet, we should do what we can to make as many of those electric as possible.
It is truly bizarre that the Guardian would publish such an obviously flawed article, only to publish another piece three days later debunking the entire thing. If Rowan Atkinson feels ‘duped’ by the EV industry then that is his prerogative. But a respected media outlet should not be giving him a platform to spread his dodgy argument. Mr Bean should stick to comedy and the Guardian should stick to the facts.