Cartoon Albert Jan Rasker
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Last week Auke Hoekstra’s column scored more than 7000 readers. Hoekstra used it to tear into the German research institutes which regularly put the advantages of electric driving into perspective. An earlier column, in which Hoekstra makes mincemeat of similar assertions by the Belgian professor Damien Ernst, is still one of our best read stories. Readers are apparently passionate about the differences between driving with electricity versus fossil fuels. We asked Rotterdam’s sustainability expert and old-timer enthusiast Sander Jongerius, for his opinion on the squabbles between the German and Dutch researchers.

What is the point of this discussion?

“It is a good thing in itself to have a discussion about the extent of the pollution caused by cars. It’s mostly about what they emit, and how much energy it takes to make an electric car and the battery. The only problem is that the scientists who are discussing this all measure something else than what others are measuring. They frequently do this in different ways as well. So those calculations are often not correct. An electric car is in principle very clean because nothing comes out of the exhaust. It doesn’t even have an exhaust – as long as the car is not a hybrid and there is not a combustion engine in it. That’s good for the cities we live in. It means cleaner air for us. At the same time I wonder if it’s fair that we’re sitting here in that clean air, while the battery is made of rare metals – sometimes up to 18 kilos – that thousands of children in Congo are extracting from mines. That is just child labour. It is not fair trade. That is one of the reasons why I am not a fan of electric cars. If you’re talking about sustainable driving, you should look at all the steps in the production chain. That has been happening in the textile industry for some time already, yet in the car industry it has hardly been looked into.”

If you’re talking about the emission levels from driving on fossil fuel versus electricity: who is right?

“That is another difficult discussion. Studies usually focus on where the tipping point lies. Is the energy that the production of the car has cost recouped after 160,000 kilometres, as has been stated in the Netherlands, or only after 700,000 kilometres, as a Belgian expert recently claimed? (Incidentally, Hoekstra estimates the tipping point to be 19,000 kilometres – ed.) Then you should also take into account as to how the electricity is generated that is used for recharging the car. In Norway, they generate a lot of energy from hydropower. There, driving on electrical power is more environmentally friendly than in Germany, for instance, where energy is sometimes generated from lignite. If you say: I get all my energy from a wind turbine, you have to ask yourself what the production of that wind turbine has cost in terms of energy. Obviously, the same applies to oil production. You would have to decide on what the cleanest is on a case-by-case basis. I once heard an American say that driving electrically in California, where there is a lot of solar energy generation, is a great idea. But this does not apply in a colder state where not much renewable energy is generated. The situation varies a lot on a local level.”

Can’t the new developments in hydrogen-powered cars and electricity-powered cars coexist?

“I think so. At the same time, you can take steps forward in the development of driving on hydrogen and driving on electricity. Although I find it such a pity that the discussion is not about abandoning the car altogether. Will everyone have to have an electric car? I don’t think that’s necessary.”