The Wall Street Journal published an editorial on April 23 that derided electric vehicles in Germany as “dirty,” based on a recent study that has been called into question by a number of experts and mainstream German news outlets. The Journal's editorial board, which has a history of climate denial, has attacked both German energy policy and electric vehicles (EVs) before.
The dubious study has also been hyped by climate deniers and right-wing outlets in the U.S., including Infowars and The Daily Caller.
Experts point out major flaws in German study on electric vs. diesel cars
The study was conducted by the Ifo Institute, a Munich-based think tank, and argued that a Tesla Model 3 electric vehicle driven in Germany is responsible for more carbon dioxide pollution than a Mercedes C220d diesel vehicle. The study, which was released in German on April 17 and has not yet been translated into English, finds that the Tesla emits between 156 and 181 grams of CO2 per kilometer driven, compared to 141 grams of CO2 from the diesel Mercedes. The study attributes roughly half of the Tesla's emissions to the vehicle’s production process, including its battery, which the authors assume will only last 10 years or 150,000 kilometers. The other half of the Tesla’s estimated emissions in Germany come from electricity used to charge the car, some of which is generated by burning coal.
Soon after the study's release, German-language outlets started pushing back on its findings and methodology, including Der Spiegel, the highest-circulation news magazine in Europe, and WirtschaftsWoche, a weekly business news magazine. Articles in both publications highlighted miscalculations and faulty assumptions, and pointed to a number of other studies on EVs that had come to opposite conclusions.
One English-language debunk of the study came in a Twitter thread from Netherlands-based energy researcher Auke Hoekstra. Hoekstra noted that the study's claims about the diesel Mercedes' emissions are wrong -- the Mercedes emits closer to 220 grams of CO2 per kilometer, rather than 141, he argued. He also highlighted how the authors used an extremely low number for how long an electric vehicle battery lasts. He stated, “even Tesla's from the olden days can drive 600 000 km before the battery reaches 80% capacity.” He summed up his criticisms:
To summarize: EVs only emit more CO2 if you make unrealistically negative assumptions for battery production, battery life and electricity mix while making unrealistically positive assumption about diesel consumption.
Correct ANY of these and the tables are turned. Bigly.
— AukeHoekstra (@AukeHoekstra) April 22, 2019
Hoekstra also argued that the analysis should not be presented as an academic study. Instead, he characterized it as “the opinion of three people, … none of whom have any background” in EVs or batteries. One of the authors, Hans-Werner Sinn, has been criticized for using dubious assumptions in energy studies before: Sinn received strong pushback on a 2018 paper he wrote claiming that energy storage requirements ultimately limit the expansion of renewable energy. Sinn has also argued that criticism of Volkswagen over its role in the Dieselgate scandal has been exaggerated, and placed much of the blame for the scandal on U.S. efforts to regulate diesel engines.
Another debunk of the Ifo study came from Fred Lambert, chief editor of the electric transportation news site Electrek. He noted:
One of the biggest mistakes they are making is that they are comparing the full production and lifecycle of an electric vehicle, including the emission from the electricity uses, against the production and lifecycle of a diesel car without accounting for all the energy used to produce the diesel and supply it to the cars.
Lambert also called out the study’s authors for falsely assuming a battery life of 150,000 kilometers and for failing to note that Germany is planning to rapidly decarbonize its electricity system, which would greatly improve the carbon footprint of EVs in the near future.
Another criticism of the study has been its focus solely on Germany's energy grid and the authors' failure to take into account the overall mix of the larger European energy market that Germany is a part of. German carmaker Volkswagen, which manufactures both EVs and diesel vehicles, responded to the study by defending EVs. In an English-language article by Deutsche Welle, a German international broadcaster, Volkswagen noted that with Germany's current electricity mix, its Golf EV would have a similar CO2 output as a diesel car of the same type -- 142 grams per kilogram compared to 140. However, “using the European energy mix for calculations, which includes large amounts of nuclear energy from France and water power from Norway, the e-Golf's carbon footprint would be down to 119 g/km” -- far below the CO2 output of a diesel car.
Other analyses have disproved the claim that EVs are not environmentally friendly. In 2018, the Union of Concerned Scientists found that a U.S.-based EV is equivalent to a conventional gasoline car that gets 80 miles per gallon. Unlike the German study, it looked at all of the emissions from fueling and driving both vehicles. It also found that EVs will get cleaner over time as electric grids get cleaner, noting that its 2018 estimate was an improvement of 7 mpg from 2017. And a 2017 report from the Transport & Environment group, a Brussels-based transportation policy group, found that EVs emit fewer greenhouse gases than diesel cars even when EVs are powered by the most carbon-intensive electricity.
Right-wing outlets in the U.S. promote Ifo’s study to disparage EVs
Although the Ifo study is specific to Germany’s electric grid and has been widely criticized, climate deniers and right-wing outlets in the U.S. have picked up on it and are using it to disparage EVs generally. Steve Milloy, a notorious denier and frequent Wall Street Journal contributor, tweeted about the study on April 19. On April 22, extreme right-wing outlet Infowars wrote about the study, and far-right conspiracy theorist Paul Joseph Watson tweeted about the Infowars piece. The right-wing website Zero Hedge wrote about the study too, and a tweet pointing to that post was retweeted by Mandy Gunasekara, a former Trump EPA official and current Fox News contributor.
After The Wall Street Journal wrote about the study, still more right-wing outlets covered it, including The Daily Caller, which has a long record of inaccurate reporting on climate and energy issues, and The Western Journal, a conservative news outlet with a history of deceptive climate claims.
The Wall Street Journal has a long track record of misleading on climate and energy issues
The Wall Street Journal's opinion pages have spread misinformation about climate change for decades. A Media Matters study found that from January 2015 to August 2016, one-third of the paper’s climate-related opinion pieces contained climate denial or other inaccurate statements about climate change. We’ve also found that the paper's opinion section is ExxonMobil’s chief apologist for its climate change lies, and it has defended the fracking industry against accusations that it contaminates drinking water. According to a recent article in Current Affairs, the Journal has shifted in recent years from denying climate change to downplaying it, but still remains an impediment to clean energy and climate action. The Wall Street Journal has always been a pro-polluter, pro-industry paper, so it’s no surprise that it would overlook flaws and publicize questionable research that disparages a direct threat to the fossil-fuel industry.