If consumers and businesses cared about the CO2 they emit, the last cars they might buy are hot-selling EVs like
Mustang Mach-E or GM’s Hummer EV.
These large-battery, long-range vehicles would have to be driven many tens of thousands of miles before they rack up enough mileage and save enough gasoline to compensate for the emissions created to produce their batteries. And that’s according to their fans, whose calculations often smell of friendly assumptions about the source of the electricity consumed, whether gasoline driving is really being displaced mile for mile, and a presumed lack of progress in reducing the carbon intensity of conventional motor fuels. Most problematic of all is the assumption that EV use causes oil to stay in the ground.
If a real incentive to reduce CO2 were in place, namely a carbon tax, buyers would gravitate to the smallest-battery vehicles and hybrids, suitable for running about town but not highway trips. These cars stand a better chance of offsetting their lifecycle emissions.
OK. Buyers aren’t drawn to the electric Mustang or Ford’s new F-150 Lightning pickup to solve climate change. These are exciting, high-tech gadgets in their own right. And that’s fine. Even so, customers’ appetite might slacken if they were told the truth. Ford leaked this week for the benefit of the investment community plans to lay off thousands of workers to fatten the profits of its conventional vehicles. This extra cash is needed to support electric vehicles that lose money despite taxpayer rebates plus hidden subsidies via our convoluted fuel-economy and trade regulations.
Ford’s leak may be a turning point. Conventional vehicles will be starved for investment from here on out, even as auto makers throw money at big-battery EVs for luxury buyers.
This trade-off could actually lead to worse emissions than otherwise (though still a rounding error in total global emissions) considering that most nonrich consumers will likely opt for gasoline-powered cars for decades to come. It also represents a gamble with the industry’s finances, which depend on large, government-protected profits from standard SUVs and pickups. If these vehicles start looking shabby and out of date due to lack of investment, the industry is in deep straits. As Ford CEO
said in March, “we need them to be more profitable to fund” Ford’s $50 billion in spending on mostly high-end EVs, which have the least chance of being net reducers of CO2.
These outcomes make no sense in climate terms, naturally.
is giving up its pioneering electric Leaf in favor of a big electric SUV aimed at affluent shoppers. One manufacturer that speaks confidently of profits in the near term from electric vehicles is Porsche—whose cars don’t rack up Camry-like mileages, don’t displace gasoline-powered trips to the Shop-Rite, and don’t stand a snowball’s chance of offsetting the emissions involved in producing their powerful batteries.
Our EV policies are mainly a testament to modern society’s ability to create complexity when it starts trying to hit multiple political bogies even if it means ignoring the bogey that originally set off the policy quest—in this case, carbon reduction.
Youngish voters in particular say climate is their first concern and yet a nil percentage bother to dig any deeper. Voilà, the budding audience for ludicrously subsidized products (if the goal is reducing CO2 emissions) like today’s plus-sized electric vehicles. Their dreamland is Norway, where hybrid and electric-vehicle miles now exceed conventional-vehicle miles, thanks to generous subsidies to EV buyers. Paid for how? With 0.07% of the world’s people, Norway exports 2% of the world’s oil and gas, 30 times its share of global population.
Regulators everywhere are structuring their electric-vehicle industries on the Norway model, based on subsidies from less-affluent people who continue to buy gas-powered cars. A zombie business or industry, in today’s parlance, is one sustained less by creative destruction than by a combination of government bailout, regulation and hidden subsidies. This is what the global auto sector is becoming. Germany, having saddled its domestic makers with mandates for diesel and then electric vehicles, has repeatedly had to scarf together hidden rescues when the mandated investments didn’t pay off. Don’t think it can’t happen here. In fact, the history of the U.S. auto sector since the Chrysler bailout of 1980 has been of more or less continuous open and crypto-bailouts.
According to the consultancy AlixPartners, some $526 billion is currently being invested to create dozens of mostly high-end electric vehicles aimed at the 17% of buyers who constitute the luxury market. The impact on climate of these cars will be zero. Let’s hope the impact on taxpayers will be zero when the bills come due.
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Appeared in the July 23, 2022, print edition.