“Electric cars: most of the pollution is still there”– it’s a sentiment you may well have heard. But where did it start? To pinpoint the exact moment would be tricky, so I’ll start my story last weekend when I read an interview with British Cyclist, Chris Boardman.

I’ll get straight to it- what shocked me the most, was his phrase: “The electric car is one of our biggest concerns”

He then continues: “It will make you feel like you’ve done something positive without having to change your behaviour. Most of the pollution’s still there – from the particles produced by tyres and brakes – and it doesn’t address obesity and health, it doesn’t address congestion, yet it will make people feel like they now have the moral high ground. Potentially, electric cars are a real problem.”

“Biggest concerns”? … wow.

He must have a long list of big concerns if electric vehicles make his list. How must he sleep at night with so many worries?

So, after a bit of digging I found a link to a 2017 Guardian article1 which claims Professor Frank Kelly said “Electric cars are not the answer to air pollution”.

Interesting. Perhaps I’ve been wrong all along? Or maybe not. A little more digging and I realise that Professor Kelly has been completely misquoted.  What he actually said was, “even zero-emission vehicles are not the complete answer to poor air quality.” And we’re not suggesting EVs are the answer to poor air quality- but we certainly won’t accept that more electric cars aren’t a significant improvement.

The article also claims that about half of all particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10) comes from non-exhaust sources.  This seems to come from a 2014 report by the European Commission 2.  However, there are other details in the report that the Guardian article conveniently glosses over. I’ll save you the jargon by paraphrasing (obviously feel free to read the full report though!):

  • There’s a huge difference between emissions generated in residential vs. motorway settings. On the motorway brake-wear only contributed to 3% of overall non-exhaust emissions. Whereas, in a residential area this rises to 16-55% of non-exhaust traffic emissions.(So it’s not very accurate to cherry pick and say about half of particle matter comes from non-exhaust sources).
  • Then think about ‘airborne emissions’- 50% of brake-wear and up to 10% of tyre-wear emissions are airborne… the rest is deposited on the roads or the vehicle. So, there’s a problem with measuring this. Food for thought.
  • Then my main point to reference from the report- the study includes emissions from clutch and engine-wear, wheel bearings and corrosion of components. EVs don’t have a gearbox – therefore, no crunching gears. Electric motor friction accounts for a large portion of braking – so actually the amount that a driver uses the brake pads is less, and therefore the emissions are also less from this.

Let’s take the worst case scenario, say we do believe the quoted figure of nearly half – actually let’s just call it half.   The UK government’s 2019 Clean Air Strategy report states that road transport is responsible for 12% of PM2.5 emissions.  So, allowing for a bit of conflation say that EVs will only cut this by 50%, then that’s surely a huge step in the right direction?

So even the worst case scenario shows we are miles away from the conclusion that with EVs “most of the pollution is still there”.

This is a clear example of a narrative fallacy – presenting the solution as inadequate because it is not perfect.  Imagine a world where we dismissed all progress because it wasn’t progression. How terrible would that be?!

Instead, I prefer to continue to avoid perfectionist narrative fallacies and focus on companies that improve outcomes for society and for investors… even if they’re not quite at the perfect mark yet.

1 https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/aug/04/fewer-cars-not-electric-cars-beat-air-pollution-says-top-uk-adviser-prof-frank-kelly

2 http://publications.jrc.ec.europa.eu/repository/bitstream/JRC89231/jrc89231-online%20final%20version%202.pdf

3 https://www.wired.com/story/look-ma-no-brake-youll-drive-electric-cars-with-one-pedal/

About the author

Jonathan Parsons is an Investment Manager in the Equities team with responsibility for North American equities. He also manages a global technology portfolio and contributes to the idea generation process for our global equity portfolios. Prior to this, he worked as a Quantitative Analyst, also in the International Equities team. Jonathan joined us in 1996 straight from university and has 23 years’ industry experience*. Jonathan studied Mathematics & Computation at Loughborough University of Technology and is a CFA charterholder.

*As at 30 November 2018.

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