Shaking his head, Auke sits down behind his computer: “Here we go again. What is going on? In an open letter to the European Commission, 171 scientists claim to have discovered a calculation error. Their message: ‘Electric cars appear to emit a lot more than previously assumed.’

In Germany, several media outlets reported this as news, but over on Twitter, Auke explains in great detail what is wrong with this study.

Auke immediately pounced on this when he was tipped off via Twitter. “I will be honest and admit that at first I didn’t understand much of it. The calculations are unnecessarily complex and extremely roundabout.” Again, Twitter offered a solution. Auke enlisted the help of Tom Brown, a quantum physicist from Berlin. Auke: “He said straight away that this would never have been published in a scientific journal about climate or energy.”

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    What doesn’t add up?

    “The article is based on a flaw in thinking. There is not enough sustainable electricity available to meet all our energy needs. For any extra energy that is needed, a coal-fired power plant is turned on. In this article, they attribute that extra energy to electric vehicles. If there were no electric cars, then no extra energy would be needed, that’s their simplistic claim.” Auke claps his hands in front of his face as he wonders aloud how stupid do you want it to be.

    “This way, you can say of all the things that you consider undesirable, ‘you see! If we don’t do this, then the coal plant won’t have to be turned on!’ But who says EVs will mean that you have to burn coal? Maybe it’s for heat pumps, or maybe the neighbor just bought a new jacuzzi. You can’t hold one particular device responsible for this,” Auke looks questioningly at the screen. Is it possible to follow it a bit? “Suppose you have a school with 20 children and 1 teacher, but for the 21st child you need an extra teacher. Should the 21st child then pay for the teacher all on her own?”

    Incorrect assumptions and out of context

    According to Auke, the scientists also ignore the fact that the energy mix is becoming greener and do not include in their calculations that coal-fired power plants in Germany are supposed to be all closed down by 2035. “What’s more, they forget that you can get electric cars to charge smartly – at times when there is more energy available from sun and wind. This alleviates the burden on the grid and uses the energy mix when it is at its greenest.”

    Auke sighs, “They are not saying: ‘Look, we pulled a mathematical trick to calculate something in a roundabout way.’ No, they yell that it’s all about a fault in the energy system. Then you also need to present it to energy experts and not run to some obscure mathematical science journal. Why don’t they just apply it to the context?” Auke already knows the answer: “A scientific journal on energy would never have posted this. These researchers are well aware of that too.”

    According to Auke, Thomas Koch of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology and the man behind the association that sent the open letter is not a scientist but a fraud. On Twitter, Auke shows that Koch has been in the wrong before with calculations.

    You’re marching straight in. Do you want to provoke a reaction? Or is this emotion?

    “I don’t expect a reaction from Koch. I’m just tired of it all. All those erroneous calculations all over again. I can’t stand it when people lie to me, it is not okay. Koch has not come up with anything new, he has calculated something trivial – erroneously – and then says that the EU has got it wrong. By doing this, he is trying to put EVs in a bad light.”

    Are you worried that these kinds of mistakes will end up being reflected in policy?

    Auke starts laughing: “The way he’s doing it now, I’m not so worried about that. Then he really needs to try harder.”

    But at the same time, Auke does hope that with his debunks he can do as much damage control as possible. “By quickly disproving this story, we have managed to defuse it I think. It helps a lot if you already come up with counterarguments within a few hours. That’s the beauty of Twitter. My followers act like a radar. I trust them to mention me whenever a dubious study pops up somewhere.”

    He is not really worried that policy might be made using incorrect figures: “You see more and more up-to-date data on emissions from battery production, for example, in policy documents. And in science, too, there is plenty that is going well.”

    Are these kinds of ‘false’ studies ever going to go away?

    “I fear they won’t. The interests in sticking with the established order are high. Nor should we underestimate the power of incompetence. I do my bit by quickly neutralizing these kinds of articles. But I am under no illusion that this will be resolved by flexing my muscles.

    Auke himself has no ready-made solution for the problem yet. It remains pervasive. In news reports, polarization scores and on social media everyone is validated within their own bubble, according to Auke. “Within my own community I notice it too. Bjorn Lomborg. You know the guy? The Danish political scientist who downplays climate change. He thinks the cost of climate change is not so bad economically. I really don’t agree with him, but he does have a point here.””

    But on Twitter, Auke’s community reacted furiously: “Apparently, you are not allowed to say that in my bubble. It bothers me that no one makes a serious attempt to address this. The same happens with ‘combustion adepts’ where climate change is a hoax.”

    So then, what is your role in that?

    Auke responds stridently, “I really want to make the world a better place, not sell a story that I just happen to like. Electric cars are not a solution to particulate matter. As much as I would like them to be, they just aren’t. Nor do they solve traffic jams or the consumption of raw materials. Which is why these are all things that I am not going to claim either. Let the chips fall where they may. I start from the facts. I hope that more scientists recognize this.”

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    About the author

    Author profile picture Milan Lenters is a writer and editor. Through IO, he got to know his native city Eindhoven in a different way and sometimes looks with amazement at the many stories that lie ahead.