Known primarily for his portrayal of the dim-witted character Mr. Bean on television and in films, British actor Rowan Atkinson may not seem like the world's foremost expert on climate change and electric vehicles. But an op-ed he published over the weekend that declared "our honeymoon with electric cars is coming to an end" has thrust him into the center of a global debate and ignited a backlash among environmentalists and electric vehicle experts.
“Electric vehicles may be a bit soulless, but they’re wonderful mechanisms: fast, quiet and, until recently, very cheap to run. But increasingly, I feel a little duped," Atkinson wrote in his piece in the Guardian. "When you start to drill into the facts, electric motoring doesn’t seem to be quite the environmental panacea it is claimed to be.”
An early adopter of electric vehicles who also owns a collection of vintage gas cars, Atkinson cites a number of common critiques of EVs, including that manufacturing them produces more emissions than manufacturing gasoline vehicles. He also argues that, given the environmental harm caused by mining rare- earth minerals for the lithium ion batteries used in EVs, it would be better to wait for the development of hydrogen-powered cars and trucks and keep using gasoline in the meantime.
Atkinson's piece comes as the United Kingdom is considering a ban on the sale of gasoline cars by 2030 in order to slash greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change. The European Union and California have also approved measures that phase out the sale of new gasoline-powered cars by 2035.
Genie out of the bottle
The speed at which the world is switching from gasoline-powered cars to EVs has been remarkable. In 2022, according to the International Energy Agency, 14% of new cars sold were EVs, up 9% from 2021. In China, roughly 1,400 EVs were sold in 2010, compared with 5.9 million in 2022.
Automakers have seen the writing on the wall and plan to spend $1.2 trillion on electric vehicle and battery production over the next seven years. That investment is spurring innovation, which, in turn, is helping to make manufacturing EV batteries friendlier for the environment.
"The EV carbon footprint is plummeting across the three great industrial zones of Europe, America, and China. A deepdive by McKinsey concluded that the emissions of leading battery suppliers would fall by 75pc over the next five to seven years," Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, world economy editor of the Daily Telegraph, wrote Tuesday on the rapidly changing landscape for the production of electric car batteries. "Batteries are already being made that no longer require cobalt. By late-decade we will start to see solid-state batteries that are four to six times more efficient, so efficient that they can run on sodium instead of lithium for routine run-about cars."
On its website, the Environmental Protection Agency notes that "the greenhouse gas emissions associated with an electric vehicle over its lifetime are typically lower than those from an average gasoline-powered vehicle, even when accounting for manufacturing."
Auke Hoekstra, a professor at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands who has conducted research comparing lifetime emissions of EVs and gas-powered cars, was one of several experts to weigh in on Atkinson's article.
Atkinson is a great comedian but doesn't understand the environmental impacts of EVs
The @guardian quality control should have picked this up
EVs emit 3x less CO2 over their lifetime currently
EVs sold in 2050 will emit 10x less
— AukeHoekstra (@AukeHoekstra) June 4, 2023
British-based climate tech analyst Gniewomir Flis also rebutted Atkinson's claims.
"High embodied emissions do mean a battery car is more carbon intensive out of the factory than a gasoline car. But with distance driven, gasoline cars emit far more emissions. Reuters calculates that after 21,000 km, battery cars start reducing CO2," Flis wrote in a Twitter thread.
Leah Stokes, professor of climate and energy policy at the University of California, Santa Barbara, summed up the view of many experts.
Love it when a weird, British 90s celebrity who is notably not an energy expert spreads misinformation about EVs on @guardian. Just the best!
Your daily reminder that the fossil fuel economy involves 535x more mining than a clean economy, EVs included. https://t.co/5NbrXaiZR9
— Dr. Leah Stokes (@leahstokes) June 5, 2023