Deflating the Wall Street Journal's Hot Air on Electric Cars

March 13, 2013 | 1:46 pm
David Friedman
Former contributor

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) recently published a very misleading op-ed on electric cars. Given their similar history on climate change and oil subsidies, I’m sure this shocks you as much as would a dog bites man story. But the frequency of opinion pieces in the Journal and other publications that are peddling bogus memes around electric vehicles (EVs) calls for continued push back.

Electric Vehicle Emissions Are No Secret

The title of the WSJ opinion piece (“Green Cars Have a Dirty Little Secret”) implies that nobody really knew that manufacturing EVs creates more global warming pollution than manufacturing gasoline cars. That is just not true. In fact, many organizations have been looking at the manufacturing impacts of EVs for more than a decade. MIT did great work on the issue back in 2000 in their On the Road in 2020 report and followed that up with On the Road in 2035. Carnegie Mellon University’s Vehicle Electrification Group regularly looks at the issue. And Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) has made their GREET Lifecycle Model publicly availablefor years.

In areas of the country where most electric vehicles are sold, their lifetime carbon footprint is about half that of a comparable gasoline car even when you include emissions from making the vehicle. That’s because manufacturing emissions pale in comparison to those created in-use for gasoline.

The fact is that making electric cars does create some additional global warming pollution, but the in-use emissions savings far outweigh the extra emissions from manufacturing. In other words, they are not so dirty and no secret after all.

Vehicle Global Warming Emissions by the Numbers

My colleague already addressed this EV manufacturing vs. in-use emissions issue in a blog last year, but given the WSJ piece, let me add to that discussion.

First, data from the ANL work indicates that nearly 90 percent of a compact car’s carbon footprint comes from making gasoline, transporting it, and then burning it in the car. Only about 10 percent comes from making the vehicle. ANL also indicates that carbon emissions from manufacturing are 33 percent higher for a comparable EV.

Second, most electric vehicles are being sold in areas of the country like California, Washington, and New York, where electricity comes mainly from natural gas, hydropower, and nuclear plants, not coal. Our organization’s study on EV emissions—State of Charge—shows that such grids will lead to an in-use global warming emissions reduction of 60 to 70 percent. That’s better than even the best hybrid cars on the market today.

When you add in Argonne National Laboratory estimates of emissions from making the vehicle with our in-use emissions estimates for places where most EVs are operating, an electric car will still cut carbon emissions in half compared to a gasoline version. And as you will see below, electric cars are still cleaner than gasoline when you look at other parts of the country with dirtier grids.

The Real Dirty Little Secret

The real “dirty little secret” in the WSJ piece is that the author, Bjorn Lomborg, has a history of selectively using information to fit his opinion rather than allowing his opinion to be shaped by all the facts. For example, in his past work on climate, Lomborg cherry-picked information to present a skewed view of how to combat global warming.

In this new piece on EVs, he does exactly the same kind of cherry-picking. He relies on an outlier study that estimates that EV manufacturing emissions are twice those of gasoline cars. He then goes even farther by using an example where the EV is charged from the dirtiest electricity possible, coal.  But, even with these extreme assumptions, my colleague showed that an EV still has an emissions advantage compared to the average new compact.

Lomborg did not stop there, however. He also assumed that an EV would travel at least two-thirds fewer miles over its life compared to a gasoline car. In other words, he assumed that EVs would fail. Honestly, he could have saved us a lot of time if he’d just stated that unfounded and unsupported assumption up front.

Help Focus on Electric Vehicle Facts Over Fiction

If you’re as concerned about the WSJ piece and other unsubstantiated EV critiques as I am, I’d like to ask for your help. When you see an op-ed or editorial that seems to rely on cherry-picked data or fact-challenged claims to spread fiction on EVs, push back by writing a letter to the editor to get the facts out.

We’ve got some resources to help. You can find tips on effective letters on our website, and also see our State of Charge report and Model E web resource for more information on EVs. And you can generally find information you might need if you keep up with my blog and that of my colleague, and if you follow me on Twitter.

While some think that repeating bogus or misleading claims over and over will make them true, we prefer to rely on the facts. And when you look at those, it is clear that electric vehicles are already delivering big benefits and will deliver even more as electricity gets even cleaner.

update 3/15/13: edited spelling in the chart