Mr Bean is right about electric cars

Mr Bean - PA
Mr Bean - PA

You wouldn’t ask Mr Bean for advice on which car to buy (or anything else for that matter), but as for his creator, that is another matter. Before making a success out of comedy, Rowan Atkinson studied electrical engineering, and automotive control systems in particular. He was an early adopter of electric cars, buying his first hybrid in 2005 and his first pure electric car in 2014. But he now says he feels duped by the claimed environmental benefits of electric vehicles. Writing in the unlikely location of The Guardian – not noted for balanced climate change coverage – he claims that most of us would do the environment a favour by steering clear of them for now, and hanging onto our old petrol and diesel cars for as long as possible

Why? Because electric vehicles are only “zero emissions” (as they are still commonly, and wrongfully claimed to be) if you look solely at their lack of an exhaust pipe. As we know, nearly 40 per cent of our electricity is still generated by fossil fuels. Moreover, a sizeable proportion of the lifetime carbon emissions of any car come in the manufacturing process – from making the steel, plastics etc. Worse, manufacturing emissions may in some cases be 70 per cent higher for electric cars than for equivalent petrol or diesel vehicles. As a result, you have to cover a certain number of miles before the electric car can be said to have emitted fewer carbon emissions than a petrol car. Estimates for this critical distance vary anywhere from 8,000 miles ( if you are recharging in Norway, which has a high proportion of hydroelectricity) to 94,000 miles (if you are driving in a country where electricity is more coal-based, according to a study by the University of Liege).

If you are thinking of scrapping a perfectly functioning petrol or diesel car in order to buy an electric vehicle, the sums are more heavily weighted against the latter. Why? Because the carbon emissions from the manufacture of your existing vehicle have already been spewed out while the emissions from the manufacture of the replacement vehicle would be fresh emissions.

In other words, scrappage schemes like that proposed by Sadiq Khan in an effort to drive old cars off the road are likely to be counter-productive as far as carbon emissions are concerned.

Atkinson is right. If carbon emissions are your prime concern (and there are of course legitimate other considerations when buying a car, not least cost and practicality), you shouldn’t fall for the hype. Unless you have a very high mileage you would be better off hanging onto your existing car – and avoiding miseries such as relying on public charging points.

Next time I buy a car I will consider an electric vehicle, and if by then there are vehicles on the market which will go 500 miles between charges and which can be recharged in no more than half an hour, on an adequate charging network, I am sure I will buy one. In the meantime, I’m holding onto my diesel. And no, I don’t feel like a miserable, antisocial Mr Bean figure for coming to that conclusion – I am merely acting rationally, both from an economic and environmental point of view.

Ross Clark is the author of Not Zero: How an Irrational Target Will Impoverish You, Help China (and Won’t Even Save the Planet) 

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