The Guardian has had a Mr Bean moment over electric cars on 3 June. British actor and petrolhead Rowan Atkinson penned an article for the outlet opining that he felt “duped” by the environmental call for electric vehicles (EVs). Instead, Atkinson defended petrol cars and argued for a shift to nascent hydrogen and synthetic fuel technologies.
He has since been rightfully dragged on Twitter for a number of factual errors and long-debunked claims about the industry. Crucially however, he entirely missed the point about the legitimate issues with an en-masse global fleet transition to EVs.
The Guardian’s EV misinformation machine
On 3 June, the Guardian published an opinion piece by Atkinson titled I love electric vehicles – and was an early adopter. But increasingly I feel duped. In it, Atkinson laid out his arguments for why the electric vehicle is not “the environmental panacea it is claimed to be”.
However, a number of climate, energy, and car specialists have pulled him up on his facts and sources. Deputy and senior policy editor for Carbon Brief Simon Evans, for example, linked to a factcheck thread he’d previously posted on EVs:
It has come to my attention that Rowan Atkinson has had something of a Mr Bean moment in the Guardian
Read on...Support us and go ad-free
— Simon Evans (@DrSimEvans) June 3, 2023
The thread referenced Carbon Brief’s research rebuttal to media misinformation on the life-cycle emissions of EVs versus petrol engines. In particular, its research debunked Atkinson’s claim that retaining old polluting petrol engines would be better for the environment since they had “paid their environmental dues”.
Carbon Brief instead showed that:
In the UK in 2019, the lifetime emissions per kilometre of driving a Nissan Leaf EV were about three times lower than for the average conventional car, even before accounting for the falling carbon intensity of electricity generation during the car’s lifetime.
Furthermore, Evans explained that after four years, a new EV car will have paid off its carbon debt. Conversely, a conventional petroleum car would continue to produce emissions after this point:
Our EV factcheck has been updated again:
Q) Surely making batteries for EVs causes much higher emissions than building a std car?
— Simon Evans (@DrSimEvans) February 10, 2020
Eindhoven University of Technology’s Auke Hoekstra issued a scathing analysis of Atkinson’s claims. Notably, he highlighted that Atkinson relied on a disproven right-wing study to make his points:
I'm not entirely convinced Atkinson is being honest here, because he is very precise in cherry picking all the anti-EV tropes, including citing an extremely conservative outlier study that @MLiebreich and I picked apart when we did #Astongate.
— AukeHoekstra (@AukeHoekstra) June 4, 2023
Public transport is the real solution
Hoekstra also pointed out how the Guardian’s process had failed its editorial remit:
Now I don't blame Rowan Atkinson that much. He's an actor, comedian and writer. And the world is full of outspoken people with nonsensical opinions that they swear by.
— AukeHoekstra (@AukeHoekstra) June 4, 2023
In short, the Guardian had published false and misleading information, without basic fact-checking. Of course, the right-wing media also seized the opportunity to amplify Atkinson’s argument against EVs. Both the Daily Mail and the Telegraph reported on his piece.
Naturally, this brought out the right-wing climate deniers in droves. Richard Wellings, who co-authored a pro-motorist and road-building report for the opaque right-wing thinktank Policy Exchange, weighed in. On Atkinson’s article, he said that:
It's a repeat of the diesel scam. They're sucking people in with subsidies and tax breaks, before they tell us "EVs are actually really bad for the environment" and impose new charges and restrictions. The real goal is a big reduction in car ownership. https://t.co/SlstGg9lGU
— Richard Wellings (@RichardWellings) June 4, 2023
Ironically, this was exactly the point that Atkinson was missing. Wellings’s non-sequitur conspiracy aside, to meet climate targets countries will indeed need to move away from individual car ownership.
A 2020 study in the journal Nature found that in the US, full electrification of the car fleet would not be enough to meet climate targets. In fact, the sector would blow through the carbon emissions which scientists have budgeted for the sector, in order to prevent 2C or more of global warming. Instead, it argued that the US government should invest in affordable and accessible mass public transport.
Likewise, the progressive thinktank Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has stated that shifting to EVs in the UK would fall short of what is needed. It stated that:
the current approach to decarbonising transport in the UK could see a 28 per cent increase in car in use by 2050, and an 11 per cent increase in car traffic.
Even a professed car-lover and expert decried Atkinson’s polemic. Car journalist Hazel Southwell argued that EVs are not the future – public transport is:
I'm a car journalist but the future of cars is: not cars. sorry, that's the difficult truth here.
by far the most sensible thing for us to develop isn't BEVs or synthetic fuel, it's public transport to get vehicles off roads.
— Hazel Southwell (@HSouthwellFE) June 4, 2023
The social justice case against EVs
Moreover, transport policies are an issue of both climate and social justice. Sustainable transport and EV journalist Ginny Buckley pointed out that EVs reduce air pollution:
He makes some valid points but completely ignores the benefits EVs have on local air quality.
In London alone air pollution caused by traffic is leading to nearly 4,000 premature deaths a year. https://t.co/fCUjLC0B3T
— Ginny Buckley 🇺🇦 (@GinnyBuckley) June 4, 2023
Echoing this, the UK’s independent Committee on Climate Change stated that:
A full shift to EVs by 2050 will have one of the highest impacts particularly on reducing nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOC)27, responsible for asthma, inflammation and other lung problems.
Therefore, a shift to EVs could reduce the UK’s dire air pollution, which causes respiratory health problems and premature deaths.
However, Southwell also raised the issue with the tyre particulates that EVs would continue to produce:
tyre particulates are still polluting on an EV and they're a colossal problem. keeping old cars running isn't something we can consider, let alone spend huge amounts of energy on. that sucks, I love cars but it is what it is.https://t.co/CjhLYIlSvR
— Hazel Southwell (@HSouthwellFE) June 4, 2023
The IPPR has also highlighted that:
Over 90 per cent of the highest income households own at least one car (and over 20 per cent own three or more) while only a third of households in the bottom 10 per cent by income own a car. People on lower incomes would benefit much more from an improved public transport system
In other words, governments prioritising a shift to EVs while failing to improve and expand public transport networks will disadvantage marginalised poor and working class communities most.
Critical minerals which harm Global South communities
There are valid critiques of EVs, but Atkinson’s pseudo-scientific article did not make them. Climate crisis analyst and communicator Ketan Joshi suggested that articles like Atkinson’s are detracting from these important criticisms:
There are so many decent criticisms of the directions much of transport decarbonisation policy is taking, and all of those important criticisms will keep getting drowned out as long as very shit content like this Rowan Atkinson (??) piece get priority https://t.co/JYLHyCCsiJ
— Ketan Joshi (@KetanJ0) June 3, 2023
For instance, his Guardian article failed to raise a key issue with EVs. Specifically, there are huge impacts in the mining of the minerals that car manufacturers use to produce them.
The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) has linked ‘transition’ minerals to multiple allegations of human rights abuse. It defines transition minerals as six critical materials that manufacturers use for renewable energy technologies. This includes minerals for battery and other components to produce EVs.
As I previously wrote on the Centre’s findings in a report on the Andean region:
the transition will rely on expanding extractive industries that destroy the environment and harm people in the Global South. Electric vehicle solutions entrench colonialist and exploitative resource drain from Global South countries. In addition, far from addressing the racial capitalist inequalities of the climate crisis, their production exacerbates these injustices.
A separate BHRRC report from 9 May revealed that mines in the Philippines and Indonesia had affected the health of nearby communities. Through water and air pollution, as well as damage to the environment, the mining operations impacted the food security and respiratory health of local residents. Both mines produce minerals for large EV battery manufacturers such as Panasonic, Tesla, and Toyota.
Private car ownership harms marginalised communities everywhere
Moreover, as countries around the world scale up production to meet their net zero targets, this compounds the risk of harm to communities in the Global South.
The IEA has calculated that the electric car industry alone could require 30 times its current use of lithium and cobalt by 2040 to meet climate goals. To supply these minerals, mining companies would therefore need to expand their operations on a gargantuan scale.
A BHRRC report on mining operations for transition minerals in the Andean region argued that:
without due attention to human rights, such an expansion risks repeating a centuries-long model of harmful extractivism and exploitation of Indigenous and peasant communities in Latin America, driving a new form of “green colonialism”
Atkinson’s argument is riddled full with factual potholes. At best, his article in the Guardian is a misleading and irresponsible piece of opinion journalism. However, at worst, it plays right into the hands of the fossil fuel and polluting automobile industries hell-bent on delaying meaningful climate action.
Meanwhile, a transport vision that maintains private car ownership will harm working-class and marginalised communities the world over. Atkinson is right about one thing, though. EVs are not an “environmental panacea” – but neither is any solution where cars rule the world.
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