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LowCVP responds to Financial Times article on EV life-cycle emissions

Fri 10 November 2017 | Back to news list


The LowCVP has written to the Financial Times responding to an article originally published under the heading: "Green driving’s dirty secret: how clean is your car?" The LowCVP believes that the article based on a study by researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) into the full life-cycle emissions of electric cars compared with gasoline vehicles in the US mid-west is misleading. 

The LowCVP's letter, responding to the article originally published on November 8, says that the piece is likely to confuse readers about the contribution that electric vehicles can make to cutting UK CO2 emissions and delivering on climate change objectives, and neither does it properly reflect the MIT research on which it is based. 

The article focuses on one small petrol car (the Mitsubishi Mirage) and compares this with a luxury, performance car (the Tesla Model S) to show that the former outperforms the latter in terms of life-cycle emissions of CO2, based on the current US mid-west electricity generation mix. The LowCVP's response says that the original headline used is particularly misleading (this has subsequently been changed in the on-line version) and that the article itself focuses on two extreme outliers from MIT’s dataset to make its case. 

The LowCVP points out that the current UK electricity mix is approximately half as carbon-intensive as that of the US mid-west (one of the US and the world’s poorest examples in terms of grid decarbonisation). A Tesla Model S operating in the UK will therefore already comfortably outperform a Mitsubishi Mirage in terms of CO2 emissions over its life-cycle by around 30%.

Moreover, the UK electricity grid is rapidly decarbonising and on a trajectory to being zero carbon by 2050. In addition, while the grid is getting cleaner, the life-cycle emissions from harder-to-reach fossil fuels are increasing.

The LowCVP concurs with the article, however, when it states that policy makers must set up the appropriate regulatory apparatus to differentiate between electric vehicles and judge them on their environmental merits. The Partnership also agrees that assessment of the relative impact of vehicles in terms of climate change objectives must move increasingly from a tail-pipe to a life-cycle basis of assessment.

The LowCVP is actively working in this space to help develop the appropriate tools for policy makers and accessible information for consumers to help meet overall societal objectives.

The Financial Times article was followed by an article in the Daily Mail (10 Nov) under the heading "Electric cars are NOT as green as you think" which is based on a similarly misleading interpretation of the MIT research. Several other articles have been published in other outlets, following this theme.

Update (16 Nov):  The FT has published several responses to the article, including one from the MIT report authors led by Jessika Trancik of the Trancik Laboratory. The MIT letter says that the article "turns the fundamental conclusions of our research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology on their head, giving the public a misleading perspective on electric vehicles.

"...rather than make this simple point by showing the spread of lifecycle emissions from a representative sample of different electric and petrol car models — data that we made readily available — it instead uses a cherry-picked example."

The letter goes on to say that "The article makes a legitimate argument about vehicle policy: that emissions regulations should differentiate vehicle models by their full lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions (emissions accruing from both the tailpipe and the production of the vehicle and fuel)."

The FT also published letters by Mark Jolly of Cranfield University, focusing on the importance of life-cycle emissions, and from Prof Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University, also challenging the article, explaining how EVs can bring about decarbonisation.

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