The Straw Man: Looking critically at claims about EV emissions

April 7, 2020 |

A completely interesting example of what is known as the Straw Man fallacy appeared in coverage of a study that appears in this month’s Nature Sustainability, on electric vehicle emissions.

The lead author of the study, University of Nijmegen’s Dr Florian Knobloch told the BBC: “The idea that electric vehicles could increase emissions is a complete myth. We’ve seen a lot of discussion about this recently, with lots of disinformation going around. We have run the numbers for all around the world, looking at a whole range of cars and even in our worst-case scenario, there would be a reduction in emissions in almost all cases.”

What exactly is a Straw Man fallacy? It is weakening and altering an opponent’s position, and then “demolishing” the altered version.

Example:

Ronald Reagan: “All great change begins at the dinner table.”

Straw Man says: “Ronald Reagan says we have to eat dinner every time we make a decision, which will make us all fat and unhealthy.”

The study attacks the idea that “electric vehicles could increase emissions”, suggesting that “we’ve seen a lot of discussion about this recently”. But, how much is there, really.

People who question the value of electric vehicles almost never say that they increase emissions, per se. What they do say is:

1. Plug-in electric vehicles reduce emissions far less than many people think they do. The myth really is of a zero-emission vehicle, since electric cars simply emit their pollution elsewhere, instead of through the tailpipe.

2. The push for plug-in electric vehicles almost invariably trades on this idea of sharply reduced emissions, when there are more conventional technologies that cost a lot less, involve almost no change in infrastructure or the purchase of a new car, and reduce emissions more than many electric vehicles do.

3. A plug-in electric vehicle is only as green as its grid, and there are countries with such a dependence on coal that a shift to electric vehicle adoption could, in fact, slow efforts to reverse climate change.

4. A rapid conversion to plug-in electric vehicles would require a substantial increase in a) fossil electricity generation or b) intermittent renewable sources such as solar or wind — a slower conversion allows for a safer build-out of grid resources.

Instead of tackling the big issues, the study authors invent a non-issue and report that, “The new research from the universities of Exeter, Nijmegen – in The Netherlands – and Cambridge shows that in 95% of the world, driving an electric car is better for the climate than a petrol car.”

Of course, almost no one drives a pure “petrol car” any more. New renewable fuels have far lower levels of emissions, and can in fact be carbon negative. Trucks operating on renewable diesel have typical emissions 70 percent lower than those operating on fossil fuels.

We’d also take issue with a couple of real myths — not just the straw-man kind — in the BBC report.

Myth #1

The authors state:

“The idea that electric vehicles could increase emissions is a complete myth.

Later in the story they add:

“We have run the numbers for all around the world, looking at a whole range of cars and even in our worst-case scenario, there would be a reduction in emissions in almost all cases.”

The Digest comments:

How can something be a complete myth if it is true on occasion?

Myth #2

The article states:

In 53 of 59 global regions – including all of Europe, the US and China – the findings show electric cars and heat pumps are already less emission-intensive than fossil-fuel alternatives.

Elsewhere in the story the article states:

The only exceptions are places like Poland, where electricity generation is still mostly based on coal.

The Digest comments:

Isn’t Poland in Europe?

Myth #3

The article states:

The new research from the universities of Exeter, Nijmegen – in The Netherlands – and Cambridge shows that in 95% of the world, driving an electric car is better for the climate than a petrol car.

Elsewhere in the story the article states:

In 53 of 59 global regions – including all of Europe, the US and China – the findings show electric cars and heat pumps are already less emission-intensive than fossil-fuel alternatives.

The Digest comments:

Isn’t 53 out of 59 equal to 89.8 percent, not 95 percent?

Myth #4

The article states:

The researchers say average “lifetime“ emissions from electric cars are up to 70% lower than petrol cars in countries like Sweden and France (where most electricity comes from renewables and nuclear), and around 30% lower in the UK.

Elsewhere in the story the article states:

Zero-emission cars on the rise, (citing ‘total UK annual registrations of battery electric cars”).

The Digest comments:

Why is a technology that reduces emissions by 30 percent described as a zero-emission car?

Myth #5

The article notes that “abrasion of electric car tires and brakes will still create pollution in cities.”

But it doesn’t go on to point out that particulate pollution is a hidden problem that comes with tires on roadways, that heavier cars shed rubber faster and electric cars are heavier.

The Digest comments:

Sky emissions are a huge problem, but we shouldn’t rush to solve them without thinking through tire technology first and so that we don’t purchase lower global temperatures through dirtying the air. And in that spirit, let’s point to Birla Carbon, and development partner GranBio Technologies, who have combined carbon black and nanocellulose to improve the performance and sustainability profile of tires.

More on tires and particulate matter here.

The Bottom Line

Electric vehicles are a very special and important type of vehicle, for the right situations and the right owners who can afford them.  The UK numbers are not so incredibly awe-inspiring, either. Roughly 1 in 90 new cars in the UK was a pure electric. Yes, the number has grown, but from a very small base.

By way of disclosure, my wife and I own an all-electric vehicle which we use on our small farm, and we love it. But we are not blinded to the challenges that electrics face as a tool for reducing emissions in the near term.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Category: Top Stories

Thank you for visting the Digest.