# Calculating The Carbon Cost Of … well, anything.

There is currently a twitter argument happening, along with a bit of a blogging swarm, over a chimera of a remark made by John Stossle and Bjorn Lomborg. They made the claim that a million electric cars would have no benefit with resect to Carbon emissions. The crux of the argument is that there is a Carbon cost to manufacturing and running electric cars. When we manufacture anything, we emit Carbon, and when we make electricity to run the cars, we emit Carbon, etc. etc.

Lomborg is wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. But here I want to focus on one aspect of why he is wrong that applies generally to this sort of topic.

My point is very simple, really. We can take any green and clean technology, such as making Ethanol from corn (to replace gasoline produced from fossil fuels), or building windmills, or running electric cars on juice produced in coal plants, and so on, and count the fossil Carbon released by the process against the savings of Carbon by the process. But that is wrong. The reason it is wrong is that we need to keep the Carbon in the ground. If there is fossil Carbon being released by a coal plant that is running, ultimately, electric cars (or buses or trains) than there is a savings for the simple reason that running vehicles with electricity is a) more inherently efficient than using countless tiny explosions of fossil fuel, and b) almost always uses a mix of non-fossil-carbon energy sources such as wind power, hydro, nuclear, and solar. But that is not the point. The point is that ultimately we have to change the energy source from coal and natural gas to other sources. When we see a variable in the Carbon savings for a given technology that involves releasing fossil carbon, we have to hunt down that source and change it to non-fossil energy production. We need to build the electric cars in plants that are run on non-fossil energy, and use materials that are obtained, shipped, and processed with non-fossil energy, and run the vehicles on electricity made with non-fossil sources.

And increasingly, this is happening. If you have a plug in EV car now, there is an increasing number of places where you can plug the thing in and get non-fossil fuel juice to charge it up. This of course is developing too slowly. Every park and ride lot, the big giant parking lot at the mall, and your garage, should all have solar cells on the roof to provide at least some of the energy used to charge cars that plug in for some juice. Individual home owners should opt, where possible, to buy wind generated energy over fossil fuel generated energy. And so on.

The argument that “you can’t do this thing to avoid using fossil fuels because the thing uses fossil fuels” is countered by the argument that “if you are using fossil fuels than you need to find a way to not use fossil fuels.” The entire argument that the use of fossil fuels is involved in the non-use of fossil fuels is real, but temporary, and is really nothing other than an argument to not use fossil fuels in ALL areas we are currently using them, eventually.

1. #1 jane
April 22, 2014

Four of the five “Lombord is wrong, wrong, wrong, etc.” links lead to pages that counter his overall ideology, which says it’s economically preferable to refrain from mitigating climate change, then let the rich adapt and the poor suffer and die. They don’t actually say anything about the electric car issue. The fifth only puts up a picture of an electric scooter, not a car, and announces that Lombord’s argument is “very silly.”

Given that I have a modest-sized car and don’t put as many miles on it, I am not convinced that – in the nonexistent scenario in which I could pay for a new electric car – immediately buying a newly manufactured car and send the previously manufactured car to the scrap heap when it had years of life left would reduce my total lifetime carbon consumption. If I had a Hummer and a 100-mile daily commute, the balance might be different. To know where it lies, we need numbers, not slogans.

I also highly doubt that it will be feasible for long, or at all, to use renewable power sources to produce enough electric cars for a world of a billion car drivers, not to mention all the electric road maintenance and construction equipment to build all the roads that all those drivers take up. Eventually, what we are going to do is give up universal car dependency, either voluntarily or involuntarily. In the meantime, we shouldn’t be encouraging the people of other countries to fall into the same trap.

April 22, 2014

His argument is an ideological one, so countering the ideology of it isn’t irrelevant. I suspect that over time there will be a few more posts with some specifics. Dana’s post goes beyond ideology.

“Given that I have a modest-sized car and don’t put as many miles on it, I am not convinced that – in the nonexistent scenario in which I could pay for a new electric car – immediately buying a newly manufactured car and send the previously manufactured car to the scrap heap when it had years of life left would reduce my total lifetime carbon consumption”

I’m pretty sure no one is suggesting that. This is a bit of a straw man. Assume that we can only replace a few percent of the total number of cars out there a year. I doubt yours would be on the list.

One year ago this applied to me as well. We have a household with one commuter, and a second car that doesn’t do much. Upgrading to a hybrid or electric car may not have made much sense. But then one of the cars required an engine rebuild and some other expensive work and was heading towards the junk yard. Suddenly it made sense to consider an electric or hybrid. Then, it came down to deciding if the hybrid would be worth it (because we can’t really afford to make decisions without the personal economic consequences factored in, despite the large checks Al Gore sends me every month). So we compared the car we would get if we did not get a hybrid with a hybrid. The hybrid turned out to be cheaper. So we got one.

“I also highly doubt that it will be feasible for long, or at all, to use renewable power sources to produce enough electric cars for a world of a billion car drivers”

Based on the continuous increase in non-Carbon electricity we are producing and the rapid decline of price for investment in that technology? Or based on the fact that over the next few months the total amount of money being invested in energy sources will be in the majority for non-fossil carbon sources?

” not to mention all the electric road maintenance and construction equipment to build all the roads that all those drivers take up.”

Right … if we use only gas and diesel cars, than the road building process will not release any fossil carbon, but if we use way more electric cars, than it will. Apparently.

“Eventually, what we are going to do is give up universal car dependency, either voluntarily or involuntarily.”

Perhaps. Or, some other form. Giving every one an electric car will cost a fraction of moving everyone to places where Carbon-free transport can work, so there’s that. But yes, changing how we get around would be nice, but first we’ll have to change where we live and where the stuff we go to is located.

” In the meantime, we shouldn’t be encouraging the people of other countries to fall into the same trap.”

I’m pretty sure no one favoring clean energy is hoping the rest of the world will do what we have done.

3. #3 jane
April 22, 2014

“His argument is an ideological one, so countering the ideology of it isn’t irrelevant.”

The fact that Lomborg has money-centered and Eurocentric values says plenty of bad things about his character, but it doesn’t help me to evaluate the truth or falsity of specific factual utterances.

“This is a bit of a straw man.”

Well, no. I’ve witnessed well-to-do individuals bragging about how they’re fighting climate change by getting brand new electric or biodiesel cars when their old cars were still in great shape. It’s possible that the way to spend the least amount of energy on transportation at a societal level, assuming no change in behavior, is to keep the less gas-guzzling part of our vehicle fleet running as long as possible. If you stipulate that a person needs to buy a different car and is going to buy a newly manufactured car, certainly, it is good to buy the most energy-efficient car one can.

“Based on the continuous increase in non-Carbon electricity we are producing and the rapid decline of price for investment in that technology?”

Yeah, solar and wind energy are increasing, and that’s great. It means we could run basic amenities off solar and wind in future. I see no evidence that either can be scaled up to produce the quantities of energy that American society now consumes, much less to extend first-world consumption levels to developing countries. Biofuels and hydropower provably cannot, and I doubt that nuclear or geothermal can.

“Right … if we use only gas and diesel cars, than the road building process will not release any fossil carbon, but if we use way more electric cars, than it will. Apparently.”

Straw man. The more people who do all their errands by car twenty years from now (assuming that it’s still widely feasible to do so), the more lanes and parking spaces must be paved, the more often highways must be repaired, etc. I do not see all that work being done with solar power.

“Giving every one an electric car will cost a fraction of moving everyone to places where Carbon-free transport can work, so there’s that. But yes, changing how we get around would be nice, but first we’ll have to change where we live and where the stuff we go to is located.”

We do, admittedly, have far more sunk costs in the disastrously inefficient suburban land-planning model than any other nation. We may hope that people who live in utterly car-dependent burbclaves will be able to move out of them over time – assume, as for the replacement of the entire vehicle fleet, that this is done at a few percent per year, and it doesn’t seem so unimaginable – as otherwise they may end up in quite a fix. But not everyone lives in burbclaves. Many people live in neighborhoods that could rapidly be made livable for non-drivers by the stroke of a pen, e.g., legalizing freelance jitney and minibus services and nullifying zoning regulations that prohibit even small stores and safe workspaces within residential neighborhoods. In many places, it’s primarily cultural expectations that prevent people from getting to work on scooters or bicycles – as people in many cities worldwide do regularly – or letting kids walk or bike to school. Bewailing the impossibility of having the entire country move house, while taking no action to reduce the political impediments to living sustainably where most of us live right now, is not going to be a good course of action if the assumption that the party can continue indefinitely on a renewable-energy supply turns out to be wrong.

April 22, 2014

“Well, no. I’ve witnessed well-to-do individuals bragging about how they’re fighting climate change by getting brand new electric or biodiesel cars when their old cars were still in great shape.”

I’m not going to argue those doods were doing the right or wrong thing, but really, arguing that people do stupid things as a reason to not do smart things is absolutely a straw man argument.

“I see no evidence that either can be scaled up to produce the quantities of energy that American society now consumes, ”

That’s just not what the people in the industry claim.

“Straw man. The more people who do all their errands by car twenty years from now (assuming that it’s still widely feasible to do so), the more lanes and parking spaces must be paved, the more often highways must be repaired, etc. I do not see all that work being done with solar power.”

Straw man back at you! Nobody is saying that we want the status quo or to shift how we get about.

“Many people live in neighborhoods that could rapidly be made livable for non-drivers by the stroke of a pen”

A large number, and we should absolutely do that. As I’ve been saying all along.

5. #5 jane
April 22, 2014

And … straw man back at you! I am indeed wholly in favor of doing smart things, but believe that smartness must be defined either by individuals’ values or by agreed-upon objective measures. Assuming my finances permitted the choice, would it be a smart thing for me to throw out my washing machine and buy a new hyper-efficient model – thus causing a new one to be made, with attendant pollution and resource consumption – or would it be smarter to hang onto the one I have as long as possible? It seems to me that this determination rests on considerations including how heavily the washer is used and the absolute difference in energy consumption per use between my washer and the new one. In other words, I would want to hear numbers, not “You’re still using an old wasteful washer? You bad denialistic person, you.” Cars seem different because they are practically sacred in American life, but they’re really just another large appliance.

6. #6 Stephen
April 22, 2014

“Well, no. I’ve witnessed well-to-do individuals bragging about how they’re fighting climate change by getting brand new electric or biodiesel cars when their old cars were still in great shape.”

But they didn’t scrap their old good car. It went into the second hand market, where someone bought it who got rid of their old car etc. Chances are that as a result of the well-to-dos getting rid of their good car a clunker fell out of the overall car pool somewhere else.

Does that save a lot of carbon? Not really. There might or might not be minor fuel efficiencies with the newer car, but it certainly isn’t as if all the manufacturing inputs of the great shape old car are “wasted”

7. #7 Gingerbaker
April 22, 2014

” I see no evidence that either can be scaled up to produce the quantities of energy that American society now consumes, much less to extend first-world consumption levels to developing countries.”

How hard have you been looking? Because I have seen some pretty qualified people say that we can indeed scale up, and have it all completed by 2030 if we wanted.

Published in 2011:

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301421510008645

Heck, solar PV could do it all on its own quite easily if we had an international grid:

8. #8 anthrosciguy
April 22, 2014

“I’ve witnessed well-to-do individuals bragging about how they’re fighting climate change by getting brand new electric or biodiesel cars when their old cars were still in great shape.”

And then scrapped their old one? Because that was your argument:

“Given that I have a modest-sized car and don’t put as many miles on it, I am not convinced that – in the nonexistent scenario in which I could pay for a new electric car – immediately buying a newly manufactured car and send the previously manufactured car to the scrap heap when it had years of life left would reduce my total lifetime carbon consumption.”

It was not only a strawman, but combined with a major goalpost move.

April 22, 2014

It was a goal post with staw men dressed up like Hitler hanging from it.

April 22, 2014

(Not really but the image is enticing. Could be a good meme.)

11. #11 Smarter Than Your Average Bear
April 22, 2014

http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nclimate2187.html Looks like Ethanol is not as green as it was thought to be – just referring to your mention of it as a green and clean technology.

“Removal of corn residue for biofuels can decrease soil organic carbon and increase CO2 emissions3 because residue C in biofuels is oxidized to CO2 at a faster rate than when added to soil, “

April 22, 2014

In wealthy and comparatively liberal Laguna Beach, there are a lot of new Teslas. You might be inclined to sneer at the ostentation, but you have to admit that their owners are exhibiting more environmental awareness than their peers driving Maseratis or Aston Martins.

13. #13 jane
April 23, 2014

Gingerbaker: In theory, the installation of 450,000 square kilometers of ideally located solar panels might run the planet, fine. But the resources required to create that much infrastructure, plus the needed large-scale distribution infrastructure, would be gigantic. Lots of fossil fuel would be used to manufacture all of that stuff. Huge amounts of other nonrenewable resources, such as metals and various minerals, would be required. Would they be available? There is some limit to extraction rates for each. Would attempts to acquire the needed amount in a limited timeframe cause the price to skyrocket and shortages to imperil current uses of those resources? (And how much extra fossil fuel would be burned in efforts to ramp up extraction of those resources to meet the increased demand?)

I consider it risky to assume that the amount we can get of whatever we want is always “More.” We may instead be approaching hard limits to extraction rates for quite a few resources; if so, enormous increases in the production of one kind of goods will have to be balanced by cutbacks in the production of other goods that use the same resources. I do not see the political will or public willingness to make this a societal project.

Greg Laden: You just Godwinned yourself into a losing position, sorry.

April 23, 2014

Jane, I’m glad to see you a) supporting the transition to electric cars, b) supporting the idea that it be done in an effective manner, and c) supporting the idea that ultimately cars are for the most part not the best way to get around yet d) the other transitions we’d have to make to reduce reliance on cars are not short term and will take a long time to achieve, so e) in the mean time, we should by all means be transitioning to electric cars (as stated in “a”).

15. #15 jane
April 23, 2014

We can agree on most of that. I favor the purchase of an electric car when it replaces the purchase of a new gas-powered vehicle; otherwise, I remain unconvinced of the total-lifecycle benefit. And I disagree that “reducing reliance on cars … will take a long time … so in the meantime” we should transition to electric. The period of time during which a major portion of our vehicle fleet could plausibly be transitioned, given the financial costs of new cars and infrastructure and the quantity of fuel and materials that are used to produce them, is long enough – at least several years – that substantial political action could be taken during the same period of time. Start campaigning now to ensure that dense housing is permitted in neighborhoods near workplaces or transit, that your local cab monopoly can’t veto ride-sharing projects [as actually happened in one city recently], that local police can’t detain kids seen bicycling to school [ditto], that Amtrak continues to be funded, and so forth.

Sure, if you must buy a car while you’re doing all that, buy an electric. But if we end up seeing a significant decline in the total energy we are able to extract per year, and all we have is a bunch of households with electric cars and no buses or trains or sane zoning laws, a lot more people will face the choice of feeding their kids or feeding their cars than is already the case today.

16. #16 William T
April 23, 2014

Jane, I think the point is that every year several 10s of millions of new cars are bought – whether that is by people in richer countries trading in for a newer model or people in poorer countries buying their first car. If a significant proportion of those cars were electric, then it’s going to make a dent (long term) in petrol consumption. Arguing about the amount of oil embedded in new electric versus new petroleum powered cars is only relevant if you have some real information on what those numbers are. I don’t think Lomborg or anyone actually does, so my guess is that there isn’t much difference at all. Certainly the amount of steel in an electric car is generally less, but I don’t know the energy cost of producing batteries compared to (eg) engines.

17. #17 Roguer
April 23, 2014

I think Jane’s immediate reaction shows where the breakdown in logic occurs: that if a step cannot be taken universally, then it should not be taken at all. This is really quite the opposite of what Greg is saying (that if we can take a step, regardless of the universal applicability of said step, then we should).

How many fossil fuels are used to make and install new solar panels? I could ask the same regarding mining and drilling. Oil platforms don’t run on fairie dust and angel farts, you know. The procurement, refinement, and transportation of fossil fuels ALSO uses fossil fuels (in the exact same way that the production, utilization, and transportation of renewable energy currently does).

That doesn’t mean that we should work to better the situation. I don’t have an electric car (or a hybrid). I will probably buy a Model S once I decide that my budget supports. It’s a personal decision, but one that I would like to make (as must we all – as both Jane and Greg have described in their own lives), but which currently does not make financial sense for me and my family.

The only place where Greg and I (likely) disagree (at least to some extent) is that I see nuclear as an extremely viable bridge between current infrastructure and technology and the future of renewable energy. Coal and natural gas are the present; hopefully renewable energy is the future. I personally think nuclear can help us get from one to the other, while relying less on fossil fuels in the meantime. Not as a long-term energy solution, but certainly as a positive alternative to coal and gas.

18. #18 jane
April 23, 2014

Roguer – You’re more polite than some, which I appreciate, but the “breakdown in logic” personalization is still a straw man. I never said, and do not believe, that even a provably non-scalable activity should not be put into practice by those who can – only that it shouldn’t be too aggressively promoted. But there is this other question, about how much net energy or pollution savings you get from an electric car, if the whole lifecycle is considered. If the answer is “very little in comparison to the costs involved”, or in some instances possibly “none”, then making it into a moral issue and telling the world at large “if they can … they should” is a bad idea.

The fix we are in, if I may pontificate for a minute, dates back to the deliberate creation of consumerism in the early 20th century as a way of dealing with that time’s overproduction crisis. We now have whole generations who have been raised to believe quite fervently that salvation – defined by social status and length of existence – comes from buying products. It’s all that product buying that causes climate change, and other pollution as well. But the prevailing belief and corporate interests both encourage us to look at environmental concerns as another buying opportunity: we must save the planet by purchasing “the right” products. The more radical view that we should stop all that buying is difficult or illegal for many people to implement, but arguably would be far more effective. Arguing about which “green” products should be considered morally essential lets us keep the discussion on the safe level of Stuff rather than the dangerous one of values and fears.

April 24, 2014

““reducing reliance on cars … will take a long time … so in the meantime” we should transition to electric.”

What I’m trying to say about transit and electric cars is that we should do both aggressively. But major changes in settlement pattern and transit will take a long time. That does not mean we should do something else first. It means we should start that right away, but it will take a long time.

Jane, I think you are stuck with the linear thinking problem so many people have here. By linear I mean in terms of time. Let’s build nuclear plants first, then later see if solar has come up to snuff, is a common sentiment I hear, another example of this. You keep hearing me make that sort of argument but I am making the exact opposite argument.

We need to do all the things. If there turns out to be a better strategy it will become apparent after we’ve done all the things for a while, certainly it is not apparent now.

20. #20 jane
April 24, 2014

Greg – I feel that in contrast to the more common Scienceblogs practice of portraying values disputes as factual disputes, here we had at least one factual dispute (do electric cars, for all or almost all possible buyers, reduce total net pollution enough to be worth their costs?) and it was immediately turned into a values dispute, i.e., I wouldn’t ask that question if I weren’t a selfish lazy slob, stupid or a Denialist. You’re not mentioning Hitler anymore, but you’re still making the subject of discussion my putative “thinking problem” instead of how I’m to know that the doubters I’ve seen aren’t actually right. It reminds me of the emotional responses to recent questions about the net benefits of aggressive mammographic screening by people who are heavily committed to the practice.

I think it’s great if different subsets of people pursue different approaches to mitigating climate change and/or peak oil, with the goal being that every genuinely beneficial activity is somehow, somewhere adopted and perfected. But almost none of us as an individual will or can “do all the things.” Those few who do are not those who buy lots of rightminded products but those who are voluntarily living at a near-subsistence level, and they are entitled to sneer at the rest of us – which, if they are not busy keeping their heads down for fear of losing their house or kids, they usually do. The rest of us who are trying to combine acceptable-American, global-rich lifestyles with environmental awareness select various suites of “things” that their circumstances, time and money allow. If my household consumes less in one aspect of life than yours, it’s probably consuming more in some other aspect that could easily be identified. Therefore, picking out one area in which I think I’m doing better and using it to play holier-than-thou is unwise. (Also strategically unwise, as people who think the criticism isn’t going to stop until they’re using cloth toilet paper are apt to give up and tune out.)

Driving less – and walking, biking, carpooling, taking the bus or train more, or just staying home more – is definitely part of the solution, and most people could make a real dent in their miles driven without moving house. It’s still not clear whether buying an electric would be worth it, in terms of total lifetime pollution, if you drive less than average. Someone who is thinking of doing it might instead find ways to drive less and use the money to insulate his house, possibly saving more carbon. On the flip side, getting the electric car may encourage people to think their driving is now enviro-friendly – wherever their power comes from – so they needn’t work so hard to reduce driving miles. (Indeed, the more you reduce your driving, the longer it will take you to recoup in gas savings the price paid upfront, creating a perverse incentive to drive freely.)

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