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It’s known around the company that I’m a Monty Python fan – along with Senior Sales Manager Chris Calaluca here at CCRCorp. There are times on internal conference calls when the two of us recite lines from The Holy Grail or one of the skits from The Flying Circus – to the annoyance of our colleagues. Another British comedian I enjoy is Rowan Atkinson, best known for his Mr. Bean character and his comedic mime routines. Mr. Bean is amusing, but in my view, some of Atkinson’s best work was in an older TV series called Blackadder that also included the equally brilliant Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie.

This past weekend, Atkinson wrote a counterintuitive piece in the Financial Times about EVs. “When you start to drill into the facts, electric motoring doesn’t seem to be quite the environmental panacea it is claimed to be,” he claims. His views are not simply those of a celebrity – he has an undergraduate degree in electrical and electronic engineering and a master’s in control systems. Atkinson is also not simply a casual observer as he bought his “first electric hybrid 18 years ago and [his] first pure electric car nine years ago.”  Based on my own experience in environmental management and as a long-time car enthusiast – I think his views are worth hearing.

Are we really moving forward?

Atkinson starts off arguing that the UK’s ban on new internal combustion powered cars beginning in 2030 is based on a bit of environmental myopia.

“The problem with the initiative is that it seems to be based on conclusions drawn from only one part of a car’s operating life: what comes out of the exhaust pipe. Electric cars, of course, have zero exhaust emissions, which is a welcome development, particularly in respect of the air quality in city centres. But if you zoom out a bit and look at a bigger picture that includes the car’s manufacture, the situation is very different. In advance of the Cop26 climate conference in Glasgow in 2021, Volvo released figures claiming that greenhouse gas emissions during production of an electric car are nearly 70% higher than when manufacturing a petrol one. How so? The problem lies with the lithium-ion batteries fitted currently to nearly all electric vehicles: they’re absurdly heavy, many rare earth metals and huge amounts of energy are required to make them, and they are estimated to last upwards of 10 years. It seems a perverse choice of hardware with which to lead the automobile’s fight against the climate crisis.”

Automotive ‘fast fashion’

The engineer-turned-comedian points to the automotive sales cycle and consumer behavior as the engine behind the problem (pun fully intended on my part):

“The biggest problem we need to address in society’s relationship with the car is the ‘fast fashion’ sales culture that has been the commercial template of the car industry for decades. Currently, on average we keep our new cars for only three years before selling them on, driven mainly by the ubiquitous three-year leasing model. This seems an outrageously profligate use of the world’s natural resources when you consider what great condition a three-year-old car is in. When I was a child, any car that was five years old was a bucket of rust and halfway through the gate of the scrapyard. Not any longer. You can now make a car for £15,000 that, with tender loving care, will last for 30 years. It’s sobering to think that if the first owners of new cars just kept them for five years, on average, instead of the current three, then car production and the CO2 emissions associated with it, would be vastly reduced. Yet we’d be enjoying the same mobility, just driving slightly older cars.”

I have a kinship with Atkinson on more than one level. Back in 2015, I leased a pure electric Kia for three years. It performed admirably for what it was but I never considered purchasing it because (a) the battery was getting close to its life end and I wasn’t interested in spending $7500 out of my pocket to replace it and (b) all maintenance had to be done at the dealership. I am also a shade tree mechanic and bemoan the fact that any vehicle less than 10 years old is more akin to a rolling computer than a traditional automobile. I have no idea how to work on them, nor do I have the correct computers to do so. I currently drive a 23 year old Ford with 268,000 miles because that is the car I want to drive (I don’t own a second car either). Finally, my professional background includes have experience in various aspects in manufacturing and EV supply chains.

I like how Atkinson wraps up his thoughts:

“In terms of manufacture, [internal combustion] cars have paid their environmental dues and, although it is sensible to reduce our reliance on them, it would seem right to look carefully at ways of retaining them while lowering their polluting effect. Fairly obviously, we could use them less. As an environmentalist once said to me, if you really need a car, buy an old one and use it as little as possible… Increasingly, I’m feeling that our honeymoon with electric cars is coming to an end, and that’s no bad thing: we’re realising that a wider range of options need to be explored if we’re going to properly address the very serious environmental problems that our use of the motor car has created.”

What this Means

The compelling aspect of Atkinson’s article is his view on life cycle analysis (LCA) boundaries. This is a difficult matter that all companies – not just car companies – have to tackle. Just how far forward or backward must companies analyze and evaluate in their pursuit of sustainability? There are risks no matter which direction you go:

  • If a company tries to cast the widest net with regard to its product life cycle, it must internalize and manage every issue affecting every society on the planet. This isn’t possible.
  • On the other hand, companies that limit their efforts to address only a small part of the life cycle boundaries may be accused of cherry picking data, window dressing or even detracting from other – arguably more important – aspects of their product or operations.

Much attention is focused on climate at this time which can sometimes be problematic as Atkinson points out. I believe that the current emphasis on battery technology and electrification gives short shrift to human rights and environmental impacts associated with mining, processing and transporting globally key minerals as well as their transformation into final products. These are not “clean” processes and the more society demands them, the more non-climate environmental and human rights damage will be incurred.

Companies face hard decisions about prioritizing their supply chain impacts – but to be honest, the squeaky wheel gets the grease and right now, that is vehicle emissions. At the same time, that focus could end up turning companies into sustainability roadkill.

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The Editor

Lawrence Heim has been practicing in the field of ESG management for almost 40 years. He began his career as a legal assistant in the Environmental Practice of Vinson & Elkins working for a partner who is nationally recognized and an adjunct professor of environmental law at the University of Texas Law School. He moved into technical environmental consulting with ENSR Consulting & Engineering at the height of environmental regulatory development, working across a range of disciplines. He was one… View Profile