Published on March 17th, 2013 | by NRDC


Bjorn Lomborg’s Dirty Little Math

March 17th, 2013 by  

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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  • Rex Stetson

    Your article cherry-picked a particular sentence “If a typical electric car is driven 50,000 miles …” As a lawyer, I expect that you did read and understand the word “If” at the beginning of that sentence. The WSJ article does not end there, but goes on to comment about the 90,000 mile mark, which you don’t mention. The point of the article is that an electric vehicle should not be thought of as “zero emissions”. But, I expect that you that.., why you didn’t report that is another matter. Also, please site your “best” estimates of the price per ton of carbon dioxide. For now, I am going to assume that the agencies attempting to gain extralegal control over CO2 emissions (EPA) would be citing a high, scientifically determined number to help their cause.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Yes, the WSJ goes on to talk about 90,000 miles of driving. But still uses incorrect CO2 data which makes its claims bogus.

      I don’t think anyone calls EVs “zero emission” in terms of lifetime CO2 footprint anymore than claiming that wind and solar have a zero lifetime carbon footprint.

      EVs are zero emission when driving down the road. And to the extent that fossil fuels are used in manufacturing and generating electricity there is a carbon footprint. But that footprint is less than that of a gasmobile and dropping as we green our grids.

      Look, we know who Lomborg is and we understand the game he plays.

      He’s staked out a spot in space that no one else wants, or would be willing to take, and he uses that to buy his dinner.

      • Rex Stetson

        Bob, what specific CO2 data do you refer to? Is it the claim that “Over its entire lifetime, the electric car will be responsible for 8.7 tons of carbon dioxide less than the average conventional car.” That information was likely taken from the Lomborg’s source, an article in the Journal of Industrial Ecology.

        Lomborg’s point is that their is a substantial energy cost to producing these vehicles that is often overlooked. Some gas powered vehicles may still have fewer overall emissions than EV’s when MPG and regional electricity sources are considered. But, since the lifetime of an EV is probably greater than 100,000, the net CO2 emissions are less than most gas powered vehicles, but the CO2 savings don’t start on the first day.

        We do know who Lomborg is, he is someone bring some vital cost-benefit analysis to environmental issues.

        • Bob_Wallace

          “The manufacture of a car contributes to its lifetime carbon emissions. And it’s well established that the manufacture of lithium-ion batteries is a carbon-intensive process. The question is, how much?

          For his battery-production carbon numbers, Weiss relies primarily on an outlier study from theJournal of Industrial Ecology. Its estimates of carbon footprint from lithium-ion battery production are far higher than previous studies, and it has been pilloried in the blogosphere for numerous errors too arcane to enumerate here.

          A 2010 study in the journal of the American Chemical Society, on the other hand, concludes that the environmental impact of the battery is “relatively small.” It estimates that battery production adds about 15 percent to the driving emissions of an electric car.

          A 2012 study for the California Air Resources Board puts the number at 26 percent, assuming the California powerplant mix. But if you adjust to the dirtier national U.S. grid powerplant mix, driving emissions go up. So the percentage share of battery production goes down, also to about 15 percent.”

          Lomborg appears to start with his conclusion – “Renewables and EVs sometime in the future, maybe” – and then looks for numbers which support his position.

          Lomborg published his opinion piece in 2013 and updated it later. There was contrary data to what he used publicly available well before he published.

          • Rex Stetson

            Thanks for the references! I’ll look into the numbers as this is an interesting subject.

          • Bob_Wallace

            And do remember, today’s grid is not tomorrow’s grid. Every year we add more renewable capacity and fossil fuel’s role declines. Take a look at the graph below and think about how the rate of change is almost certain to accelerate.

            Solar and wind are getting cheaper. Coal plants are being closed (about 200 of them) because it would be too expensive to clean up their smokestacks. Battery storage is starting to displace natural gas peaker plants.

            The carbon footprint of EVs (batteries) will shrink because the electricity used to manufacture them will become cleaner.

            Then, here’s how Lomborg finished his article –

            “The electric car might be great in a couple of decades but as a way to tackle global warming now it does virtually nothing. The real challenge is to get green energy that is cheaper than fossil fuels. That requires heavy investment in green research and development. Spending instead on subsidizing electric cars is putting the cart before the horse, and an inconvenient and expensive cart at that.”

            That’s wrong in so many ways. Green energy is now cheaper than new coal. And it’s cheaper than old coal if we include the external costs of burning coal. (And taxpayers pay for those external costs.)

            Since wind and solar are already cheaper, without subsidies, than coal there’s no need for additional research. Wind seems to have dropped under four cents per kWh and the ~eight cent cost of solar is largely due to installation inefficiencies. More research would be great, but it’s not necessary.

            Subsidizing electric cars creates a market. And a growing market (which is happening) means that car manufacturers will get serious about developing the best, most competitive car they can build. EV and PHEV sales are growing faster than hybrid sales grew in their first years. We’re likely short years (3?, 5?) from where EVs and PHEVs will be competitive without subsidies. Subsidizes will have done their work in short years.

            Finally, the electric car is great, fabulous, right now. The Tesla S is an incredible car. No need to wait 20 years for a great EV.

            Lomberg makes a living by being the little boy who cries “No wolf!” in support of fossil fuels. Fact is, the EV wolf is already chowing down on Granny.

          • Rex Stetson

            I’m very skeptical about the price of green energy. I have seen very different quotes as to the cost per KWH when you include direct subsidies to renewables. I don’t consider many of the “subsidies” that fossil fuels are purported to receive as subsidies in the same way that renewables are. Rather, the “subsidies” for fossil fuels are mostly tax breaks that other businesses would get rather than the 2.3C/KWH direct subsidy to wind (or that wind was getting, haven’t kept up with recent news). However, I’m persuadable.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Well, I can give you links to current wind and solar prices and you can check them out yourself.

            Wind – 4 cents in 2011 and 2012. DOE’s “2012 Wind Technologies Market Report”
            ​Wind may have dropped to 2.1 cents in 2013. That number is not yet confirmed, but does come from
            a staff scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

            Solar – 5 cents recently in the SW​

            Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory entitled
            ​ ​
            le Solar 2012: An Empirical Analysis of Project Cost, Performance, and Pricing Trends in the United States”

            ​Now, those prices include subsidies. Both wind and solar are elgible for 2.3 cents tax credit (not a direct payment) for each kWh produced during their first 10 years of operation. Since PPAs are generally for 20 years (sometimes 25) that makes the average subsidy over the life of a PPA a bit less than 1.5 cents. (I’m using 1.5 rather than 1.15 because getting your money early has financial value over getting it later.)

            Neither utility wind nor solar get direct payment subsidies. Never have. ​
            ​Fossil fuels, especially oil, get tax breaks and sweetheart land leases that other businesses would love to get.

            ​And that doesn’t account for the money we spend for the military to keep “our” oil supplies flowing.

            ​Nor does it account for the many billions we spend each year to deal with the external costs of coal.

            Just think how much better off our economy and national debt would be if we hadn’t encountered a $9 trillion bill for our three oil wars. And if we have that ~ half trillion we spend dealing with the side effects of coal.​

  • 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.

      • Rex Stetson

        WSJ has published rebuttals that have completely thrashed the original editorial.

  • 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.

    • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

    • 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.

  • 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. 🙂

  • 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…

  • 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)”

    • 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].”

  • 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!”

  • The market price for offsetting a ton CO2 in the EU is $3.67 (€2.81) so Lomborg’s figure is actually too high, not too low…

    • 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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