Many conservatives have long derided electric cars as an inefficient “green scheme” that doesn’t even help save a planet they don’t think needs saving anyway. But electric cars are getting better, and some conservatives are still trying to use the same old arguments against them.
The Wall Street Journal carries a recent hatchet job by Bjorn Lomborg, who cherry-picks from a study to make electric cars seem less green than they are:
A 2012 comprehensive life-cycle analysis in Journal of Industrial Ecology shows that almost half the lifetime carbon-dioxide emissions from an electric car come from the energy used to produce the car, especially the battery… By contrast, the manufacture of a gas-powered car accounts for 17% of its lifetime carbon-dioxide emissions. When an electric car rolls off the production line, it has already been responsible for 30,000 pounds of carbon-dioxide emission. The amount for making a conventional car: 14,000 pounds.
Of course, part of the reason electric cars produce “almost half” their emissions at production is that they emit so little after production. Using high school math skills, I conclude that if “almost half” = 30,000 pounds of CO2, then electric cars emit 60,0000-70,000 pounds over their lifespan, and if “17%” = 14,000 pounds, then gas-powered cars emit 82,000 pounds, which is still more.
But apparently Lomborg trusts the production part of that study without trusting the lifespan part of that study, because he spends the next few paragraphs arguing that electric cars probably won’t be driven enough to make up for that extra production emission. Now the whole study may be bunk, but it’s interesting that Lomborg takes the part that supports his bias and discards the rest.
Furthermore, Lomborg envisions the worst possible scenario for charging the cars – “if the energy used to recharge the electric car comes mostly from coal-fired power plants…” – without mentioning that coal’s share as a power source has dropped precipitously in the US in recent years as it is being replaced by cheaper and cleaner natural gas.
Lomborg also ignores the potential for clean solar charging. That may have been a fantasy argument even a few years ago, but solar power is becoming more efficient all the time, and Tesla is already beginning to unveil solar car charging with Elon Musk’s other company Solar City. Now maybe the solar panels are built with coal-powered energy – maybe it’s emissions “all the way down” – but as solar panels increase in efficiency, the emission advantage of electric cars over gas-powered cars will only increase.
Lomborg finally gets around to arguing that the federal government should stop subsidizing electric cars, which I completely agree with, but not because “the electric car might be great in a couple of decades.” If the electric car will be great in a couple decades, that requires some people to buy the less-great ones now so innovation can continue; that’s almost an argument for subsidizing.
It’s true that liberal greenies have overshot their claims of “zero emissions,” but it’s also true that innovation is bringing us closer and closer to that goal; it’s already a stretch to scoff that those cars might cause “just 24% less carbon-dioxide emission,” and that gap will continue to grow. Like many conservatives, I’m not too worried about the planet, but the argument that electric cars don’t even help save it anyway is becoming increasingly less true.
Conservatives would do better to stop arguing that we should stop subsidizing electric cars because they’re so bad that they don’t do any good, and start arguing that we should stop subsidizing electric cars because they’re getting so good that they don’t need the subsidies anyway. The economic arguments about the dangers and waste of government investment in specific industries are still true, but unlike the efficiency arguments, they will become more relevant, not less.
Yet some may ask, “Wouldn’t that admit that the government subsidies were successful while they lasted?” Not necessarily. We all know that when you subsidize something, you get more of it. So it should come as no surprise that subsidization of electric cars has led to innovation on that front. But that still doesn’t mean the subsidization was worth it; we don’t know how much longer it would taken to get here without the subsidies, and we’ll never know the opportunity cost of what other innovation has been crowded out.
For example, when we started these electric subsidies, we didn’t know the natural-gas revolution was coming; could we have better CNG or LNG cars by now if we had a more open market? Just as with ethanol, government tends to be too short-sighted and too slow-moving in the activities it encourages. Maybe it always would have been better to let the market decide what kinds of efficient cars to build, but that argument gets even easier to make as the subsidized ones become more successful.
I get why conservatives want electric cars to fail. It would seem to prove everything they’ve been saying about the government propping up inefficient industries without even accomplishing the government’s stated goal. And for awhile, that’s what has been happening – government tends to fail at market interventions a lot. But it’s important to recognize that government doesn’t always fail, and it’s OK to admit the exception of an apparent success; it would not prove that liberals are generally right about government subsidization. But I think a tribalistic bias against electric cars is preventing many conservatives from seeing this.