The essence of fake news: Truth and Obfuscation

Some of my readers know that my business is now Sustainable Mobility. As it is natural, I have shifted my reading interest towards that subject.

Yesterday I spotted this article on Bloomberg (not some scrawny blog) whose gist is:

When you account for the pollution created in generating electricity, an electric car pollutes just as much as a gasoline one

This is great example of “fake news” applied to a field other than politics.

The technique is subtle: you take an element of TRUTH (“generating electricity pollutes”) and extrapolate it into the desired conclusion (“electric cars pollute just like gasoline cars”) simply by OBFUSCATING (=not providing) the factual elements that would allow the reader to draw his/her own conclusions. The factual elements in question are:

  1. how much CO2 is actually emitted when generating electricity?
  2. how much electricity does an electric car consume?
  3. how much CO2 does the average car emit?

Luckily, we live in an age of open data: most information is available with a little searching, which I have done for of Italy, my home country. Let’s review these in the same order:

  1. The EEA (European Environmental Agency) actually tracks the so-called “carbon intensity” of electricity across the EU28: the data is only available up to 2014 when the EU28 average was 276 gCO2/kWh. Italy was a little better, at 229. As you can see from the chart, the figure is going down by about 20 grams per year, so Italy is probably now closer to 180 gCO2/kWh.
  2. Manufacturers are notoriously not reliable when it comes to actual consumption data, issuing figures which bear no great relationship with actual use. Luckily car consumption data have been crowdsourced long time ago by spritmonitor.de (also available in english) for all kinds of cars and engines. It turns out that most electric cars will drive about 6 kilometers per kWh (excluding Teslas which only go 4.6 km/kWh)
  3. The CO2 emission is the easiest to find for new cars, as this information is now mandatorily published: a modern medium-sized  gasoline car will emit 100 gCO2/km (manufacturer data: if wrong, you can safely assume it’s wrong on the optimistic side). The average carbon footprint of the existing cars is slightly more difficult to find, but it turns out that ISPRA, the Italian Agency for Environmental Protection and Research has an open-data database called SINAnet with data for all kinds of pollutants. For CO2, the average emission is 231 gCO2/km.

Running the numbers yields:

  • current ICE: 12,000 km * 231 gCO2 = 2.8 tCO2 / year
  • new ICE: 12,000 km * 100 gCO2 = 1.2 tCO2 / year
  • EV: 12,000 km / 6 * 229 gCO2 = 0,45 tCO2 / year

We can therefore conclude that an EV will emit almost 70% less CO2 than a modern ICE (instead of “about the same”); additionally, an ICE car also emits PM2.5, PM10, CO, NOx and benzene and a lot of electric car owners also have a photovoltaic system which therefore generates some of their electricity without any pollution at all.

Truth + Obfuscation: we must learn to deal with them.

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