Bjorn Lomborg: The muddled reality of electric cars


Climate activists and politicians constantly tell us electric cars are cleaner, cheaper, better. Germany, the U.K. and Japan, among other countries, will even prohibit the sale of new gas and diesel cars within a decade or two. But if electric cars are really so good, why do we need to ban the alternatives? And subsidize electrics to the tune of $30 billion per year?

The reality is far more muddled than the boosters of electric cars would have you believe. Carbon emissions from an electric car depend on whether it is recharged with clean or coal power. Moreover, battery manufacturing requires lots of energy, which today is mostly produced with coal in China. That is why the International Energy Agency estimates that an electric car using the global average mix of power sources over its lifetime will still emit about half as much CO2 as a gas car. You can buy that same carbon emission reduction on America’s longest-established carbon trading system for about $300. Yet many countries pay more than 20 times that in subsidies to convince people to make the switch.

The engine of an electric car doesn’t produce air pollution but it does need electricity, which can end up polluting more. One new study found that in two-thirds of American states electric cars cause more of the most dangerous particulate air pollution than gasoline-powered cars. In China, an extra electric car produces slightly less pollution than a gas car if driven in areas with new, cleaner power plants but slightly more in regions with older power plants.

Electric vehicles’ batteries make them much heavier than comparable gas-powered cars. This weight difference alone means electric cars produce more particulate matter emissions from greater tire, road, and brake wear than gasoline cars do. Heavy electric cars are also more dangerous for others in accidents. A study in Nature showed that in total, heavier electric cars will cause so many more deaths that the toll could outweigh the total climate benefits from reduced CO2 emissions. Demand for longer-range and bigger batteries will only make this problem worse.

Though electric cars are cheaper to drive, they are expensive to buy. The average U.S. car costs $48,000, an electric one more than $66,000. The lifetime cost of an electric car is nine per cent higher, even making the very generous assumption it’s driven as much as a regular gasoline car. In reality, electric cars are likely driven less than half as much, which makes them that much costlier.

Another new study shows only one in 10 households with an electric car relies solely on it. The other nine have at least one non-electric car, with most having SUVs, trucks or minivans. For most households, at least one of those non-electric cars is driven much longer distances, making the electric their “second car.”

Manufacturing electric cars is mineral-intensive. An enthusiastic switchover will increase demand for cobalt, nickel, and manganese by 40 to 80 times by 2050. Lithium demand will explode to 140 times its current use for electric cars, with cars and storage annually gobbling up more than 10 times current annual global production. There are ethical problems with this production: most cobalt mining in Congo uses child labour. There are also security problems, given that mineral processing is concentrated in China.

Norway is the only country where most new cars are already electric. But such a path is only open to super-rich countries, because Norway is paying indirect subsidies of forgone sales and registration tax worth $23,500 per car on top of other tax breaks like reduced road tolls. Of course, oil makes up a large part of Norway’s economy. The country is paying such high subsidies for such small CO2 reductions that it has to sell 100 barrels of oil, emitting 40 tons of CO2, to subsidize an electric car that will cut emissions just one ton.

Pundits suggest electric car sales will dominate in just a few decades but the reality is starkly different. The Biden administration estimates that in 2050 more than two-thirds of all cars worldwide will still be gas or diesel. If, even by mid-century, the vast majority of voters continue not to make an electric car their first choice, will politicians promising prohibitions really dare tell them to do otherwise?

Ultimately, the reason electric cars are championed is their promised emission reductions. Yet, the IEA estimates that even if the world achieves its ambitious stated electric vehicle targets by 2030, the additional saved CO2 emissions over this decade will be 235 million tons. The standard climate model used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggests this will reduce global temperatures by only 0.0001°C by 2100.

Electric vehicles will only take over when innovation has made them better and cheaper than gas-powered cars. But politicians want the change now and are planning to waste hundreds of billions of dollars subsidizing electric cars, blocking consumers from choosing the cars they want, to achieve virtually nothing for the climate.

Bjorn Lomborg is president of the Copenhagen Consensus and visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. His latest book is “False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet.”