May 18, 2020

Why Michael Moore’s electric car myths only benefit the fossil fuel industry

Why Michael Moore's electric car myths only benefit the fossil fuel industry


One of the most unpleasant feelings in the world is having to revisit something you thought you were done with. The recent release of the Michael Moore produced film ‘Planet of the Humans’ has triggered many unpleasant feelings; mostly from those who found themselves having to revisit genuinely old myths about energy, climate and technology.

The film’s been out for nearly a month now, and the list of critiques outlining the misinformation in the film is extremely long – that’s a lot of people having a bad time.

No matter how annoying it is, it’s still important to set the record straight as much as possible. The film makes a point of specifically attacking things that are frankly and simply working pretty well. Wind and solar are derided in the film; they’ve become, quite simply, the ultimate workhorses of decarbonisation. And electric vehicles – similarly attacked in the film – are shaping up as a badly underestimated component in the decarbonisation of transport.

It is easy to take swipes at people working to uncouple humanity from fossil fuels. Everything is a work in progress, and everything will be for our lifetimes, without any doubt. It is no brave thing to launch these deeply easy attacks, and it is no simple thing to repair the damage. But the film makes some gargantuan mistakes about the potential for electrification of vehicles, and it’s worth breaking them down.

We know electric vehicles help, rather than hinder

In the beginning of the film, the director, Jeff Gibbs, visits the launch of a ‘new’ car – the Chevy Volt. There is no date provided in the film, but it is most likely the 2010 launch of General Motor’s (GM) plug-in electric hybrid. Representatives of GM and a local utility in Lansing, Michigan, happily admit on camera that the electricity flowing into the vehicle is mostly sourced from coal. If you don’t recognise how badly dated the footage is, or know the context of the electric vehicle industry, it would be easy to feel somewhat horrified at these executives gleefully admitting to their folly on camera.

It is, of course, a serious act of journalistic malpractice to present this old footage without dates or context. The Volt was only ever sold as a stepping stone from petrol to electric. It went through several iterations, including an electric version in 2016. GM even ceased production of the vehicle one full year ago, and have recently announced a new platform for all-electric vehicles. To present a car that isn’t even made anymore as the base case for electric vehicles is an act of very brazen deception.

Even the information on the grid is out of date, Michigan now burns 35% coal instead of 60% as it was in 2010. A US state run comparison tool shows that electric vehicles easily outshine all the other options in the state:

Source: afdc.energy.gov

Even with a national average, the result is the same. There is absolutely no doubt that electric vehicles reduce emissions, even in grids dominated by fossil fuels. The Driven has covered this extensively, along with other outlets like Carbon Brief. Like many of the other myths in the film, it is actually somewhat overwhelming to think about how to explain just how badly it has botched even the most basic information about energy and climate. It isn’t a simple error: it exists in a parallel universe to reality.

Why Michael Moore's electric car myths only benefit the fossil fuel industry
Source: Transport & Environment

The death of the combustion engine means new life for cities

I live in Oslo – one of the key places in the world for the deployment of electric vehicles. Generous government schemes have made noticeable changes to the city. But it is not just flashy (oddly clean) high-end Teslas on the streets of Oslo. Outside my window right now is a somewhat dorky and very small BMW i3. During the day, it is hard to miss electric vans, buses and garbage trucks. Public ferries are currently being converted to electricity.

It is now a strange sensation to hear an overly loud combustion engine on the street, and it is completely mundane for lower-cost, workhorse vehicles to be electric. Norway is a big country and there is still plenty of work to be done in decarbonising the entire country’s transport system, but good progress has been made.

Most significantly, there is something crisp and clean in the air in Oslo. Air quality in the city is uniquely low, and along with better public transport, better walking and cycling routes, and better access for those with mobility issues, the conversion of combustion engines to electric has played a major part in increasing air quality.

‘Planet of the Humans’ isn’t just wrong. It’s actively denying a range of quality of life improvements. Electrification of transport is one of many tools for reducing emissions, cleaning the air, and making cities more liveable and sustainable, and those benefits cannot be wasted on the worst, clumsiest misinformation.


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