Top 10 Reasons Why Eco Arguments Suck

Tuesday 23rd November, 2010
Somewhat inspired by "Ten reasons electric cars still suck" by Rory Reid and "10 Reasons Fossil Fuelled Cars Will Always Suck" by Robert Llewellyn I've compile a new list of why I feel many Eco arguments suck. Here we go:

10 - Varying Energy Costs

Wherever you live on the planet, even in the same town, chances are you're paying a different price for both your domestic electricity and your vehicle fuel. If you live in the USA, your petrol/gasoline costs are going to be relatively low. If you live in the UK, you could be paying anything from 2 to 20 pence for every kWh of electricity. The cheaper end on an Economy 7 tariff, the most expensive end for eco friendly renewable tariffs.

Depending how much you pay for fuel, the relative cost for alternative fuels is going to vary wildly and present a very different argument and it can get very confusing for people to understand points being made by others who live in a very different economic set-up.

All this results in some, often very valid, points being dismissed unnecessarily by others.

9 - Hidden Emissions

Comparisons may be made between emissions from electric and fossil fuelled vehicles. Some claim EVs to be "zero emission". Others claim that these emissions simply come out of the power stations instead. EV supporters will argue that there are also lots of emissions as a result of pumping, transporting and refining petrol and wave around "well to wheel" arguments that take into account the full cost of producing petrol/diesel. Usually these arguments fail to acknowledge that there are very similar "pit to wheel" costs for generating electricity. The energy used to dig coal out of the ground and transport it to the power station, for example. Natural gas power stations use methane that was often tapped off from oil wells. Solar panels, wind turbines and hydroelectric set-ups all have a carbon footprint in their production.

Ultimately, nobody really has the full environmental costs for any mainstream method of generating mechanical energy. Until they do, arguing either way can be pretty futile.

8 - False Arguments

You'll hear arguments like "the internal combustion engine uses steam age technology" - so newer is automatically better is it? They used wheels and pulleys in ancient Egypt to build the pyramids, does that mean they aren't still in use in the most modern of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles? Indeed. You may read that an internal combustion engine is only 25% efficient at best, but just how efficient are our coal fired power stations that are generating the electricity for electric vehicles? Unless it's stated in the same argument, then you're not making a valid point. The true irony is that most electric power stations, be they coal, natural gas or modern nuclear work by powering steam turbines - you don't get any more "steam age" than that.

You may hear arguments that EVs are very low maintenance and that combustion engines will wear out and need constant maintenance but the same point won't mention that the useful life of EV batteries expires within 5yrs/50k miles. There's little reason why a combustion engine won't easily do hundreds of thousands of miles with very little maintenance but it looks better to argue that the new tech is easier and cheaper. There's really nothing much to choose between them here - both cars have mechanical brakes, ABS, wheels, suspension etc. Once you discount all that, a massive proportion of faults are electrical anyway and they both have that risk too.

Both sides of the argument will claim the future resale values for each are terrible but, without a crystal ball or time machine, this is impossible to accurately estimate. In reality, the market experts currently have future residuals for each at very similar levels and any argument about this is also futile.

7 - Different units - CO2/mpg etc.

People are blinded by units, whether it's mpg, kilogrammes of CO2 per 100 km or kWh. Whilst somebody with reasonable scientific skills can convert loosely from one to another, it doesn't really hold much merit. I read a quote today:

“The battery pack in a Nissan leaf holds the equivalent of just 0.65 US Gallon worth of energy. It will travel 100 miles on the energy equal of just over half a gallon worth_ of energy."

0.65 US Gallon worth of energy - seriously, what is that? So, are we talking about the energy contained in every atom in every molecule in all of those 0.65 US Gallons of fuel? It doesn't even state what kind of fuel. Are we talking petrol, or diesel? Hydrogen? Rocket fuel? We simply don't and never have measure energy in US gallons. Without an explanation this is pretty pointless.

Incidentally, many people don't even realise that US gallons are smaller than UK ones. A USA 40mpg car will actually do 48mpg in the UK - not because the fuel or tuning is different, our gallons are just bigger.

In an effort to make things easier for buyers, the Americans are now putting a windscreen sticker on electric cars that will give it an equivalent mpg value. But it doesn't actually use any gallons at all. Is this supposed to make things clearer? It truly depends on how that car is charged. If it's been charged from a renewable source, like solar or wind, it effectively has an infinite mpg value. If powered by a diesel generator, it's a very different story. We're trying to do a like for like comparison between apples and oranges here, it simply doesn't work.

As discussed in point 9, unless you have a true footprint for the power generation of that vehicle, you can't really convert from one unit to another and get a true comparison.

6 - Differing Needs

All vehicle owners have different requirements. For some, a high mpg diesel powered Smart Car is all they need; but for a family of 3, like mine, we have a child seat and a push chair to carry - a very different world. We need a larger family hatchback or saloon, but half filling the boot with a load of batteries to power a hybrid electric motor may also not suit our needs.

For some, a short range Electric Vehicle meets their requirements just fine - others frequently makes journeys beyond this limitation, so it doesn't suit. Some people don't even have a garage or private driveway where they can charge an EV.

Additionally, price is a massive factor - many buyers simply cannot afford this new technology that might cost them double that of a traditional car of similar size/spec.

Ultimately, we're all different. If we all had the same needs, tastes and wealth; we'd all be driving the same make and model of car. We don't, and as long as we don't, criticising a car for being too big, too small or too limited is again a little futile.

5 - Different Geographical Locations

We all live in different parts of the globe. If we live in the UK, most of our electricity comes from "dirty" fossil fuelled power stations. Comparing petrol cars to electric cars here is a very different argument to even our closest neighbour, France, where most of their electricity comes from wind farms and arguably cleaner nuclear reactors. North America has a lot of lakes and rivers, making hydroelectric power more commonplace and solar power is popping up all over in sunnier climates.

A Brit arguing with a Californian resident about how clean electric cars are is again pretty futile - we're using very different power supplies and even the majority of our crude oil comes from different sources that contain varying amounts of petrol/diesel. A lot of American arguments compare an electric car to a 25mpg gasoliline powered car. It's not because they are trying to make the argument easier, it's just because big guzzling engines are commonplace there and swapping them out for EVs would indeed be beneficial.

Ultimately, there is no "one for all" set of stats and arguments, so it's futile arguing with people who live in different places.

4 Estimated Figures

A lot of the figures required to make a solid argument simply aren't available. You'll hear things like "they estimate that it takes 7kWh of electricity to refine one gallon of petrol". Is this a fact? No. Is this close? We don't even know that. Does it take into account that we have to refine the oil anyway in order to get out all the other valuable fractions to make pharmaceuticals, plastics etc.? No, I'm quite sure it doesn't.

We're surrounded my estimates, whether it's the mpg of a petrol hybrid to the range of an electric vehicle. Nobody really knows until you turn the thing on and measure it. Unsurprisingly, power stations aren't keen to release figures for the amount of coal they burn when the generators aren't even turned on. Battery makes aren't keen to tell us how much energy is required in building a hybrid power train including batteries. So we end up with guesses and averages and statistics that are nothing more than a rough idea - in other words, a guesstimate.  Then people start quoting these like they are fact and confusing arguments. Until we have real numbers, your arguments are futile.

3 - Everybody is a Hypocrite

You may be driving a big executive saloon or SUV and ignoring the 30mpg on the trip computer as it's's a hybrid. You may be an avid electric car fan but flying to Portugal to test drive the latest models. You may have a big stinky Land Rover at the back of the garage that you use when your electric car is stuck in snow. Whichever one you are, we're all hypocrites. I've yet to meet anybody who does everything possible to minimise their carbon footprint. Until you are, attacking somebody for having a gas guzzling four-wheel drive is pretty futile - get your own house in order first. Perhaps we attack others in a way towards relieving our own guilt?

2 - Bias

It's very easy to have a hidden agenda when writing an article and to only provide arguments that support your theory. There are many studies out there that give a wild amount of different results for CO2 footprints of power generation and energy used by petrol cars. It's quite easy to apply optimistic figures to your own argument whilst finding the most pessimistic study for the opposition. It works and you have "official" figures to which you can refer anybody who questions you.

Bias is not big, it's not clever but all eco arguments are full of it.

1 - Making the same point over again

You may or may not have realised that there are only about 6 or 7 unique points above but, for the sake of having a Top 10, I've stretched them out. Point 2 is really the same as point 8. Point 3 and point 7 have major overlaps. Points 10 & 5 are not dissimilar. By making 10 points, instead of the true number, it's some kind of effort to make the reader think there are more reasons than there actually are. Look out for this one.

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