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Fact check: why Rowan Atkinson is wrong about electric vehicles

Oct 27, 2023Oct 27, 2023

Last week we ran a piece by Rowan Atkinson casting doubt on the environmental benefits of electric vehicles. Here Simon Evans of Carbon Brief offers his response

In a widely shared comment piece for the Guardian, comedian Rowan Atkinson said he felt "duped" by the green claims about electric vehicles (EVs).

In support of his contention, however, Atkinson repeats a series of repeatedly debunked talking points, often used by those seeking to delay action on the climate crisis.

Moreover, he suggests alternatives to EVs that are not yet widely available, would be less beneficial to the climate and are guaranteed to be more costly.

Atkinson's biggest mistake is his failure to recognise that electric vehicles already offer significant global environmental benefits, compared with combustion-engine cars.

While EVs won't solve all of the problems associated with car use – from traffic congestion through to our increasingly sedentary lifestyles – they are an essential part of tackling the climate emergency.

In its latest report, for example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said, with "high confidence", that EVs have lower greenhouse gas emissions than conventional cars. The IPCC said that electric vehicles not only "offer the greatest low-carbon potential for land-based transport", but their use would save money. (Despite elevated electricity prices, EVs are still much cheaper to run than petrol cars in the UK.)

Indeed, without a widespread shift to EVs, there is no plausible route to meeting the UK's legally binding target of net zero greenhouse emissions by 2050 – and the same is true globally.

Contrary to Atkinson's article, EVs cut emissions in the "bigger picture" taking into account vehicles’ full life cycles, from the extraction of oil or mining of lithium for batteries through to actually driving the cars.

As Carbon Brief noted some years ago, EVs already cut planet-warming emissions by two-thirds on a life cycle basis relative to combustion engine cars in the UK – and the benefits are growing.

Atkinson cites Volvo figures showing emissions from producing EVs to be 70% higher. This is misdirection. While many details of the Volvo study have been thoroughly debunked, the more important issue is that the emissions from producing batteries, while significant, are quickly outweighed by the CO2 emissions from fuelling petrol and diesel cars.

Atkinson is also wrong to say that the UK government's plan to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030 "seems to be based on conclusions drawn from only one part of a car's operating life: what comes out of the exhaust pipe".

For starters, the government's cost-benefit analysis of its policy plans for cars talks in detail about life cycle emissions. Specifically, it mentions government-commissioned research that proves EVs offer a large and growing emissions benefit on a life cycle basis.

Echoing Carbon Brief's findings, the analysis says: "BEVs [battery electric vehicles] are expected to reduce GHG emissions by 65% compared to a petrol car today, and this rises to 76% by 2030."

That same analysis gives one answer to Atkinson's touting of hydrogen as an "interesting alternative fuel" to replace petrol and diesel. The research shows that hydrogen vehicles would only cut emissions by 39% today, relative to petrol engines, potentially rising to 56% by 2030.

Another answer is that there are still only 72,000 hydrogen-fuelled fuel-cell vehicles on the planet, accounting for a tiny fraction of the roughly 1.5bn cars on the road globally. In comparison, about 14m EVs are due to be sold this year alone, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Even Toyota, the carmarker most closely associated with pushing hydrogen vehicles and cited in Atkinson's article, has recently started to follow the rest of the market in shifting towards EVs.

Atkinson goes on to suggest hydrogen for trucks, inaccurately claiming electrification is a "non-starter" due to the weight of batteries. Yet manufacturers sold 60,000 electric trucks last year and now have 220 heavy-duty vehicle models on the market, according to the IEA. European electric truck sales grew fourfold in the first quarter of this year alone, according to Volvo.

As Auke Hoekstra at the Eindhoven University of Technology has argued, electric trucks will not have a major weight disadvantage over diesels. More importantly, says Hoekstra, they will be much cheaper to own and run.

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The main problem with hydrogen vehicles is the same as for the "synthetic fuel" that Atkinson is also keen to promote. Specifically, both of these alternatives are incredibly inefficient, requiring many times more energy to drive the same distance.

Figures from NGO Transport and Environment show EVs can be driven two to five times further on the same energy as would be needed if using hydrogen or synthetic fuels. This thermodynamic disadvantage inevitably makes these alternatives much more costly to run than EVs.

A few of Atkinson's other claims are worth mentioning.

He says EV batteries only last "about 10 years". Yet "most modern lithium-ion units are likely to last the lifetime of the car", according to Autocar. Tesla's batteries are "designed to outlast the vehicle".

He complains that new cars are only kept for three years before being sold. Yet he does not reference the secondhand market, and the fact that British people are keeping their cars for longer than ever.

He claims that it is better to keep running old petrol cars than to replace them with EVs. Yet a new EV would start benefiting the climate in less than four years, relative to an old combustion engine.

He claims that lithium-ion batteries contain rare earth elements. They do not.

In concluding, Atkinson says people should "hold fire" on EVs. This is linked to the false premise that EVs "will be of real, global environmental benefit one day, but that day has yet to dawn".

The alternatives he promotes are not yet widely available, are less beneficial for the environment – and are thermodynamically guaranteed to be much more costly.

In contrast, and contrary to Atkinson's central claim, EVs already offer significant emissions savings – and their widespread use is central to meeting UK and global climate goals.

Simon Evans is the deputy editor and senior policy editor at Carbon Brief

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