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[Ed. note: ESG in the News will be published tomorrow.]

Last week, I wrote about British electrical engineer-turned-comedian Rowan Atkinson’s thoughts on EVs. A couple days after Atkinson’s original article was published in the The Guardian, he was taken to task about it in a piece by Simon Evans, deputy editor and senior policy editor at Carbon Brief. Evans begins:

“Atkinson repeats a series of repeatedly debunked talking points, often used by those seeking to delay action on the climate crisis. Moreover, he suggests alternatives to EVs that are not yet widely available, would be less beneficial to the climate and are guaranteed to be more costly. Atkinson’s biggest mistake is his failure to recognise that electric vehicles already offer significant global environmental benefits, compared with combustion-engine cars.”

He then ticks off a number of counterarguments to Atkinson:

“In its latest report, for example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said, with ‘high confidence’, that EVs have lower greenhouse gas emissions than conventional cars. The IPCC said that electric vehicles not only ‘offer the greatest low-carbon potential for land-based transport’, but their use would save money. (Despite elevated electricity prices, EVs are still much cheaper to run than petrol cars in the UK.)…

Contrary to Atkinson’s article, EVs cut emissions in the ‘bigger picture’ taking into account vehicles’ full life cycles, from the extraction of oil or mining of lithium for batteries through to actually driving the cars. As Carbon Brief noted some years ago, EVs already cut planet-warming emissions by two-thirds on a life cycle basis relative to combustion engine cars in the UK – and the benefits are growing.

Atkinson cites Volvo figures showing emissions from producing EVs to be 70% higher. This is misdirection. While many details of the Volvo study have been thoroughly debunked, the more important issue is that the emissions from producing batteries, while significant, are quickly outweighed by the CO2 emissions from fuelling petrol and diesel cars.

Atkinson is also wrong to say that the UK government’s plan to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030 ‘seems to be based on conclusions drawn from only one part of a car’s operating life: what comes out of the exhaust pipe’. For starters, the government’s cost-benefit analysis of its policy plans for cars talks in detail about life cycle emissions. Specifically, it mentions government-commissioned research that proves EVs offer a large and growing emissions benefit on a life cycle basis.”

He continues with several more specific counterpoints that I won’t reiterate here, but you can read in the original article.

What This Means

This is an interesting example of problems in the effectiveness of company/industry messaging and in life cycle analyses (LCAs) – who are we to believe? I have these thoughts:

  • The message. When communicating ESG/climate information to consumers (or any audience, really), it is critical to understand who your audience is and what message/method resonates with them. ESG professionals tend to be technical folks who think that that technical data/facts will always win over any audience. I’ve written before that “[a] typical response from ESG practitioners is to continually present the facts repeatedly, yelling them louder and louder ‘delug[ing] the listeners or readers with ever more facts, statistics, figures and ominous projections. But facts and information are perceived independently of the quality of underlying science.” When developing your company’s ESG/climate story, if you don’t communicate in a way that your audience will listen to, that is almost like not even communicating at all.
  • The technical data. In many ways, climate and ESG data is still nascent and subject to much interpretation/cherry picking. In last week’s article, I pointed out that LCA’s have inherent limitations and ambiguities that can be exploited by those wishing to make any particular argument, and 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.” To be fair, LCAs were designed only to assess environmental impacts, not human risk matters.

At some point, we may have consensus on the limitations and full benefits of EVs. Until then, companies and industries have a difficult task in communicating climate and other ESG impacts to the world’s consumers, policymakers and regulators.

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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