The Strange Psychology Of Environmentalism

While considering my options for a new car, I have been noticing the variety of electric and hybrid vehicles offered by most major vehicle manufacturers these days.

If people want to spend their money on such cars, I have nothing against that, nor do I fault car manufacturers for selling these vehicles to the customers who want them. The government subsidies and various government-sponsored buying/selling incentives are another story. Those I do oppose.

But why on Earth do people suppose that electric automobiles are better for the environment?

The argument goes (I guess) that, because these automobiles do not emit CO and CO2 from fossil fuel combustion, they must have a lower carbon footprint than other comparable vehicles. And yet, even assuming that the electric and hybrid vehicles are equally as energy efficient as their gasoline-powered counterparts, this cannot possibly be true. Why not?

First, remember the Law of Conservation of Energy? The Law of Conservation of Energy demands that a car of weight w travelling speed s requires energy e to power it. Period. Since the same amount of energy is required to perform the same amount of work, it must be true that electric vehicles use as much energy as their gasoline-powered counterparts. It really only matters how that energy is being generated.

Now, the vast majority of electricity is generated through the burning of fossil fuels, which means that even electric cars are powered by the burning of fossil fuels. Because the energy required is the same, it must also be true that the amount of fossil fuels burned is equivalent, meaning the so-called "carbon footprint" is equal in both cases.

So who do electric car drivers think they're fooling?

For more on the strange psychology of environmentalism, see this Freakonomics post, with a hat tip to David Henderson.


  1. If you think about the inefficiencies in generating electricity, from problems at the initial stages of production of coal or oil, through to transmission across long distance power lines, I would assert that electric cars probably have a bigger carbon footprint and are less carbon-efficient than our gas burners.

  2. Such an interesting and thought-provoking post. Never really considered it like that before (and I deal with cars day in and out!). Thanks for the new spin!