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Published on March 17th, 2013 | by NRDC

30

Bjorn Lomborg’s Dirty Little Math



By Max Baumhefner

nrdc switchboardA Wall Street Journal Op-Ed by Bjorn Lomborg, “Green Cars Have a Dirty Little Secret,” argues that even though driving on electricity emits half as much pollution as driving on gasoline, it never makes up for the additional energy it takes to build electric cars. How does Lomborg do the math? First, he picks an estimate for electric car manufacturing emissions that’s three times higher than conventional estimates. Second, he imagines electric cars will be prematurely sent to the junkyard, well before they’re even out of warranty. Everyone likes exposing a fake, but if there’s a hoax here, it’s not the electric car.

Lomborg’s argument rests on the reasoning included in this sentence: “If a typical electric car is driven 50,000 miles over its lifetime, the huge initial emissions from its manufacture means the car will actually have put more carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere than a similar-size gasoline-powered car driven the same number of miles.”

RAV4 EV-thumb-165x104-10115The premise that the typical electric car will only be driven 50,000 miles is fanciful. Both the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf electric powertrains are backed by 100,000-mile warranties and there’s little reason to believe they won’t be driven much further. In fact, many drivers of the electric RAV4 Toyota produced in limited numbers between 1997 and 2003 have logged well over 100,000 miles. Below is a photo taken by one such proud owner when his odometer hit six figures in 2009. Today’s much more capable and advanced electric cars will go at least as far.

RAV4 Odometer-thumb-179x134-10110Turning to the question of “huge initial emissions” from manufacturing, most researchers agree that building electric cars today requires more energy than building gasoline vehicles, but estimates for production emissions from Argonne National Laboratory are roughly three times less than those used by Lomborg. It should also be noted that conventional automobile manufacturing has benefited from over a century of learning-by-doing and economies of scale. Ford plants today bear little resemblance to those that built the first Model-Ts. We should expect and demand similar improvements in the mass production of electric vehicles.

Lomborg also claims that cars charged with electricity made from coal are dirtier than gasoline vehicles. The environmental benefits of driving on electricity do depend on where you plug in and there are a few very coal-dependent states in which the most efficient gasoline hybrid is the better environmental choice. However, there is no region of the United States where driving an electric car is not cleaner than driving the average gasoline vehicle and almost half of Americans live in states where electric cars are by far the best option available today.

And that’s today. The benefits of driving on electricity will only increase in the future as more and more old coal plants are retired and replaced by cleaner and renewable resources. Twenty-nine states have renewable energy procurement targets and coal is increasingly becoming economically unattractive. In other words, electricity will become cleaner over time, while gasoline will only get dirtier as oil companies look to unconventional resources such as tar sands.

Lomborg’s statement that the “current best estimate of the global warming damage of an extra ton of carbon-dioxide is about $5,” is also misleading. He cherry picks the lowest of four values the government uses for such calculations ($5, $21, $35, and $65). By most accounts, the “best” estimate is at least four times higher than Lomborg’s figure.

The Wall Street Journal would do a better service to its audience by reality checking its opinion writers’ facts and asking its readers if they would prefer to remain addicted to oil in perpetuity. I’m guessing most of them would like the idea of driving on a cleaner, domestic fuel at a price that’s equivalent to driving on buck-a-gallon gasoline for life.

photo-mbaumhefner-contributorMax Baumhefner is an attorney, outdoor enthusiast, and a bread baker. My focus is the juncture of the electricity and transportation sectors. I work on policies designed to integrate electric vehicles into the grid and maximize their environmental benefits. I’m an environmentalist because my parents taught me to be responsible and clean up after myself, and I always do what my parents tell me.

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  • TheSavonian

    a) Citations to figures could come in handy.
    b) For a rebuttal to have any relevance, it is generally a good idea to publish it on the same forum as the original release. Why not the pages of WSJ?

    • Bob_Wallace

      The WSJ publish a rebuttal to one of its hit pieces?

      What makes you think Rupert would allow that? The WSJ has become Fox Business News and Spin.

  • Pingback: Reuters Fail -- Oceans Are Absorbing The Heat, No Global Warming Slowdown | PlanetSave

  • yoshhash

    thank you! I despise Lomborg but he is a very good speaker, and he is capable of doing a lot of damage with his double-speak. Watch some of his speeches, he has been hosted on TED, etc. He had a public debate against Hunter Lovins and apparently he was perceived to have won this debate, although the audience was not as well-educated, perhaps easier to pull the wool over their eyes. I would love to see more articles debunking his claims. God I hate that guy.

    • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

      yeah, he is not out to help the world… but i’m still unclear what his stimulation is (fame?). haven’t seen him speaking. will check out some time. what a pity.

  • Hans

    Lomborg: pseudo-science at its best

    • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

      definitely.

  • Madan Rajan

    This is exactly like the Prius / Hummer comparison a decade ago. They presumed that Hummer-H2 will go 300,000 miles while Prius will last only 100,000 miles. Many Prius have logged more than 300,000 miles and in reality with both an engine & motor, a hybrid cars should last longer.

    So what happened later, while Prius sales are reaching 4 million units, Hummer brand has been phased out.

    Oil companies are opposing, Electric, Plusins, Ethanol and every alternative source.

    • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

      Nice reminder. Thanks. :D

  • bussdriver78

    Lomborg has a fanaticism of a greenpeace volunteer; but he has adopted the oppositions points and appears to have decided he is doing better by being a devil’s advocate. He is not optimistic and often takes a pessimistic stance, I think he does good. I don’t think he is being dishonest, he takes the strongest defensible position against the optimists and makes people work harder – but he does not perpetuate the propaganda… from what I’ve seen. Dismissing him as a crank is intellectually dishonest; I can see that this bugs him and made him more of a “crank.”

    I am surprised on the gas car being better than coal, I’ll have to find out where he got that one. It is a propaganda line but there must be something to it somewhere for him to be saying it… If so, that needs to be addressed so smart people like him can’t use it; never mind the propagandists who can fabricate reality and waste our time fighting ghosts. At least he takes real numbers; he picks the worst ones: that serves a good purpose; remember, the IPCC had a high and low climate projections on their charts. Gore tended to jump between worst and best projections; he was criticized on both sides but never made up lies – it made it easy to find an expert who found fault because few would jump between extremes in the facts just like Gore did. Reality has ranges of probability – chaos – and projections even more so.

    • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

      Lomborg is a ridiculous propagandist who cherry picks like cherries are the only food on earth. He does whatever he can to delay action. He’s even been defunded by his own government bcs his work is so horrible.

    • Hans

      If he would present his calculations as being a worst case scenario for clean technology this would be correct. However, he represents it as the best case scenario, which rather suggests he has an agenda.

  • http://twitter.com/Kompulsa Kompulsa

    My interpretation of Bjorn’s claims over the years: I care, but I don’t really care, just ignore the issue and some scientists will come up with better technology years from now, when it is too late. :)

  • http://twitter.com/Kompulsa Kompulsa

    Hello.

    I remember seeing Bjorn Lombborg comment on tv a few years ago. His argument was basically: Don’t bother to do anything now, it is better to focus on “long-term solutions”, none of which he provided actually addressed the problem any time soon.

    He just said to develop alternative energy technology, and do nothing else.

    I think he is pretending to be an environmentalist. I know that, by definition, an environmentalist is someone that cares about the environment, and there is no way that one would say to completely ignore an issue like this and just wait it out.

    He was trying to pull a trick…

  • http://www.facebook.com/roland.mathiasson Roland Mathiasson

    IPCC set the social cost of a ton CO2 to US$12 in 2005. “Many estimates of aggregate net economic costs of damages from climate change across the globe (i.e., the social cost of carbon (SCC), expressed in terms of future net benefits and costs that are discounted to the present) are now available. Peer-reviewed estimates of the SCC for 2005 have an average value of US$43 per tonne of carbon (i.e., US$12 per tonne of carbon dioxide)” http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/wg2/en/spmsspm-c-15-magnitudes-of.html

    • Ross Chandler

      The rest of that quote is “but the range around this mean is large. For example, in a survey of 100 estimates, the values ran from US$-10 per tonne of carbon (US$-3 per tonne of carbon dioxide) up to US$350 per tonne of carbon (US$95 per tonne of carbon dioxide) [20.6].”

  • http://www.facebook.com/antonio.reis.1690 Antonio Reis

    A comparision at 50K miles is just that.
    The Rav 4 did not have the battery technology the current Volt has. How many battery packs did the proud owner used in the 100K miles?
    The main problem is that for the most part the pollution we are talking about is CO2.
    If one removes CO2 from the menu, the intake air of some of the ICE vehicles is cleaner than the exhaust.
    Eletrification of transportation is the best avenue to efficiency but all other arguments are nothing but marketing approaches to manage the profit pie.

    • Toni

      Those RAV’s still run fine with their NiMH batteries. Same battery as used in the GM’s later EV-1 models. They’re even more durable than the Lithium batteries (with very little degradation over time), but the patent was bought by Chevron to never be seen in EV’s since then.

  • anderlan

    Oil and gas shills yesterday: “Look, the economics of EV, batteries, and solar just don’t make sense for ordinary people. The carbon hoax is besides the point.”

    Oil and gas shills today: “Look even though EVs, batteries, and solar are profitable for a large number of people, the truth about their carbon intensity is shocking!”

    • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

      Excellent. Love it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/roland.mathiasson Roland Mathiasson

    The market price for offsetting a ton CO2 in the EU is $3.67 (€2.81) http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/jan/24/eu-carbon-price-crash-record-low so Lomborg’s figure is actually too high, not too low…

    • http://www.facebook.com/jrpearce Justin R Pearce

      You just cherry-picked the lowest value for the price on that day, on data which is over a month old. Regardless, we pay $A23 per tonne in Australia. And despite that, that is just what we pay, not the real cost incurred by the world.

    • Ross Chandler

      Market price is not the same as the “current best estimate of the global warming damage” .

      The market price as that Guardian article notes is too low because too many permits were issued.

      The global warming damage has been variously estimated at anything up to hundreds of euros per tonne.

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    • tomandersen

      At any of the quoted numbers, wind, solar and electric cars cannot be a good financial decision without more subsidies. For instance the tax on gasoline in Europe is at the $300+ per tonne CO2 level, but even there electric cars are not an obvious win.

      • Otis11

        You overlook the fact that they tax their electricity quite heavily as well… Shrinking the difference by orders of magnitude.

        And if they aren’t a win in Europe, why are some countries investing quite heavily in Quick charging infrastructure? And why is Tesla, an electric car company having incredible success in the US, expanding to the European market?

        • tomandersen

          I am not sure you understand what ‘orders of magnitude’ means. You should look it up, but it means hundreds or thousands.

          The ‘tax’ on electricity in Europe is a there to support wind and solar. When you mess with an economy like the soviets did, you almost always end up with more waste and pollution.

          Given all that, its pretty obvious that electric cars are likely going to be an actual good idea in Europe soon. The one thing that could hold them back is artificially high electric rates, in order to pay for useless wind and solar.

          • Bob_Wallace

            ” useless wind and solar”

            What a joke. With wind and solar lowering the cost of electricity and reducing the amount of CO2 along with other pollutants it takes a real joker to call them “useless”.

          • Otis11

            Ah, he’s a little uninformed… (Most people are these days – with tech changing so fast and all)

            Give him a chance. =-P

          • Otis11

            Yes, I do realize what “orders of magnitude” means – I have a formal background in engineering. The application of comparison also depends on the units you compare it.

            And the tax on electricity long predates wind or solar becoming anywhere near mainstream enough to be considered in politics – even in Europe. They actually predate me I believe.

            I agree that government “messing” with the economy is a bad thing, and for that reason I generally do not support subsidies even if I support the technology they subsidize. But, with that understood, we also have to consider the externalities that companies can pass of onto others and account for those costs. I much prefer taxing the negative behavior because when done right, it actually has the potential to increase efficiency of the economy (lowering waste and pollution but then again it is rarely done right) to subsidizing the good behavior, but rewarding good gets better press than punishing bad.

            Ignoring the uninformed comment about “useless wind and solar” – I also disagree that the electric rates are holding them back. The higher cost of electricity is offset by the higher cost of gasoline/diesel. The thing that’s really “holding them back” is very good public transportation. When people drive less, it’s much harder to justify buying a more efficient vehicle.

            I’m not nearly as radical as you might think, but when you take such an extreme in your argument correcting the fallacies makes my post seem to be at the other extreme…

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