Electric vehicles (EVs) are often touted as a key solution to the climate crisis, as they can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution from the transportation sector. But are they really as green as they seem? Actor and car enthusiast Rowan Atkinson recently wrote an opinion piece in The Guardian, expressing his doubts and frustrations about the environmental benefits of EVs.
Atkinson, who has an engineering background and has owned electric cars for nearly two decades, said he feels “duped” by the electric vehicle trend. He argued that EVs are not as environmentally friendly as they are claimed to be, because they have high greenhouse gas emissions during production, use heavy and short-lived batteries, and may not reduce the overall demand for fossil fuels.
He cited figures from Volvo that showed that greenhouse gas emissions during production of an electric car are 70% higher than when manufacturing a petrol one. The main culprit is the lithium-ion battery, which requires rare earth metals and a lot of energy to make, and only lasts about 10 years. “It seems a perverse choice of hardware with which to lead the automobile’s fight against the climate crisis,” he wrote.
He also pointed out that EVs depend on the electricity grid for charging, which may still rely on fossil fuel power plants in some regions. The environmental benefits of EVs increase as the grid becomes cleaner with more renewable energy sources. But even then, he said, EVs may not reduce the overall demand for fossil fuels, as they may simply shift it from cars to power plants.
Atkinson suggested that hydrogen may be a better alternative fuel, as it can be used in fuel cells or internal combustion engines, and has zero tailpipe emissions. However, he acknowledged that hydrogen production is still not very green, and that the infrastructure for hydrogen vehicles is lacking.
He also criticized the car industry for its “fast fashion” sales culture, which encourages people to buy new cars frequently and discard old ones. He advised people to keep their old petrol cars if they are still in good condition, rather than buying new electric cars. “Sadly, keeping your old petrol car may be better than buying an EV,” he wrote.
Atkinson’s views may seem controversial, but they are not entirely unfounded. Experts agree that EVs have their own environmental impacts, depending on how they are charged and manufactured. However, they also say that EVs are still better for the environment than conventional vehicles in most cases.
According to an interactive online tool by researchers at MIT, EVs tend to produce significantly fewer planet-warming emissions than most cars fueled with gasoline over their lifetime. This is because EVs have zero tailpipe emissions and use less energy per kilometer than conventional vehicles. The tool also shows that the emissions gap between EVs and conventional vehicles widens as the electricity grid becomes cleaner.
The debate over the environmental impact of electric cars is likely to continue as more automakers and consumers embrace them. But one thing is clear: Electric vehicles are not a silver bullet for the climate crisis. They need to be part of a broader strategy that includes cleaner electricity generation, smarter transportation planning, and more efficient use of resources.
– I love electric vehicles – and was an early adopter. But increasingly I feel duped, The Guardian, 3 June 2023
– How Green Are Electric Vehicles?, The New York Times, 2 March 2021
– How electric vehicles offered hope as climate challenges grew, Science News, 22 December 2021
– What is the Environmental Impact of Electric Cars?, Environment.co, 14 December 2021