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Answering the wrong question but it’s good propaganda all the same

Summary:
We’re told, in The Guardian, that electric vehicles are the saviour of Gaia:Electric vehicles produce less carbon dioxide than petrol cars across the vast majority of the globe – contrary to the claims of some detractors, who have alleged that the CO2 emitted in the production of electricity and their manufacture outweighs the benefits. The finding is a boost to governments, including the UK, seeking to move to net zero carbon emissions, which will require a massive expansion of the electric car fleet. That’s sorta true, dependent upon certain assumptions. This isn’t:“The idea that electric vehicles or heat pumps could increase emissions is essentially a myth,” said Florian Knobloch of Nijmegen University in the Netherlands, the lead author of the study. “We’ve seen a lot of disinformation

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We’re told, in The Guardian, that electric vehicles are the saviour of Gaia:

Electric vehicles produce less carbon dioxide than petrol cars across the vast majority of the globe – contrary to the claims of some detractors, who have alleged that the CO2 emitted in the production of electricity and their manufacture outweighs the benefits.

The finding is a boost to governments, including the UK, seeking to move to net zero carbon emissions, which will require a massive expansion of the electric car fleet.

That’s sorta true, dependent upon certain assumptions. This isn’t:

“The idea that electric vehicles or heat pumps could increase emissions is essentially a myth,” said Florian Knobloch of Nijmegen University in the Netherlands, the lead author of the study. “We’ve seen a lot of disinformation going around. Here is a definitive study that can dispel those myths.”

Jean-Francois Mercure, of Exeter University, a co-author of the study, added: “The answer is clear: to reduce carbon emissions, we should choose electric cars and household heat pumps over fossil fuel alternatives.”

The paper is here.

The crucial assumption is that the EV or ICE powered car is measured at doing 150,000 km over its lifetime. We already know from VW’s own advertising that the electric Golf only has lower emissions than the petrol one - over the lifetime - if the lifetime distance is more than 120,000 km.

OK, so, the embedded emissions from manufacture and disposal outweigh the fuel emission savings for cars heavily used. They do not for those lightly used.

This does not, therefore, mean that the manner of reducing emissions is to mandate, by law, that only EVs may take to the roads. What we actually desire is that the low usage and short distance fleet be ICE, the long distance be EV. Exactly the opposite of the current usage, which is the EV for the little trips around town and an ICE to trash on the long distance motorway journeys.

We come back, once again, to the point that the economy is complex. It is not possible to plan it, to mandate the optimal outcome through the law or regulations. Only the use of the price system can do this. For only that price system is capable of distinguishing correctly.

In this case, given that requirement for substantial distance covered before emissions are reduced the correct policy is to be taxing EVs heavily when they first take to the road, To account for those embedded emissions. Also to tax the fuel for the ICE - as we already do - to account for the emissions in use. That is, the tax system for EVs should be entirely the opposite of the one we have, where people are subsidised to take to the roads in 120,000 km of encapsulated emissions.

Taking both sets of emissions, equally, is the only thing that will give us the optimal outcome between the two forms of transport.

This is before we get to the important point here, that they’re answering the wrong question. They’ve shown, given their distance in use assumptions, that EVs have lower - but not no - emissions than ICE. Which isn’t what we want to know at all. Rather, the question we’d like answered is what form of transport - restricting ourselves to cars if we must - lowers emissions the most. Not just ICE v. EV, but those two versus fuel cell, hydrogen, algal oil, hybrid and on and on through the entire list of possible manners of propelling a tonne of steel on four wheels. Which is, obviously enough, an answer we don’t get if we ask only the question about EV v ICE.

But this will still be used as propaganda in favour of the EV, to the exclusion of all those other possible solutions. To the point that the law will be based on that binary choice instead of the entire universe of possible answers.

We have said that planning isn’t the way to deal with this problem, haven’t we?

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Tim Worstall
Tim Worstall is a British-born writer and Senior Fellow of the Adam Smith Institute. Worstall is a regular contributor to Forbes and the Register. He has also written for the Guardian, the New York Times, PandoDaily, the Daily Telegraph blogs, the Times, and The Wall Street Journal. In 2010 his blog was listed as one of the top 100 UK political blogs by Total Politics.

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