Here we go again: German research institute claims diesels are cleaner than EVs

Anti-EV hit pieces clog the blogosphere like pickup trucks on a Texas highway, but this one sounded much more serious than the usual anonymous speculation. A respected German research institute released a study claiming EVs are dirtier than diesel – music to the ears of many in the German auto industry.

“Considering Germany’s current energy mix and the amount of energy used in battery production, the CO2 emissions of battery-electric vehicles are, in the best case, slightly higher than those of a diesel engine, and are otherwise much higher,” reads the study from the Munich-based Institute for Economic Research (IFO).

Journalists immediately predicted that automakers would use the new study to lobby policymakers to abandon support for EVs. But, as those who follow the EV scene know, dozens of earlier studies from around the world have come to precisely the opposite conclusion. Could this really be a legitimate scientific study?

Nope. The specious study was promptly and definitively debunked. A few days after it appeared, two of Germany’s major media outlets published detailed analyses that exposed a long list of errors and inaccuracies in the report.

The concept of the Long Tailpipe probably sounds plausible to many in Germany, which depends heavily on coal for its electricity, and has one of the dirtiest grids in Europe. However, as regular Charged readers know, earlier studies (see below) have found that, on average, EVs are cleaner than legacy vehicles, even if powered 100% by coal. Furthermore, Germany is steadily cleaning up its gird. By 2030, when many of today’s EVs will still be in service, the country plans to be producing two thirds of its energy from renewable sources. So, the basic premise of the study is misleading at the outset, and authors Hans-Werner Sinn, Christoph Buchal and Hans-Dieter Karl go on to present a litany of incorrect assumptions and unfair comparisons.

EV pundit Auke Hoekstra listed several of these, and wrote that it’s not even accurate to call the piece an academic study. “It is the opinion of three people…none of whom have any background in the (electric) car industry or batteries.” Hoekstra noted that he was not the first to debunk the article – just the first in English (Electrek’s Fred Lambert wasn’t far behind).

Focus, one of the three most widely read German weeklies, compared the IFO study to the infamous “Sweden Study” which was published by the environmental research institute IVL in 2017, and has been resoundingly refuted, as the business newspaper Handelsblatt explained.

WirtschaftsWoche, a German business magazine, pointed out that the IFO article’s conclusions are “in stark contrast to almost all serious international studies that have been done on the subject in the last few months.”

The EV news outlet electrive characterized the IFO article as an “unscientific opinion piece,” and suggests that Sinn and his co-authors began with a conclusion already in mind. In fact, the IFO authors imply as much in the preface to their article [translated from the German]: “We explain the current facts in such detail because we suspect in the claim that e-cars are completely emission-free a purposeful industrial policy deception.”

Dr. Markus Lienkamp, head of the Department of Automotive Engineering at the Technical University of Munich, noted (via electrive) that the IFO article was not subjected to any peer review process, and says it belongs in the file with “unscientific conspiracy theories.”

Some of the issues with the IFO article identified by Focus, WirtschaftsWoche, electrive and Hoekstra:

  • The IFO piece incorrectly assumes that EV batteries become “hazardous waste” after 150,000 km. However, this is shorter than the typical warranty period for an EV battery (a federally-mandated 100,000 miles [160,000 km] in the US, and 150,000 miles in California). Furthermore, many automakers and others are working on recycling EV batteries, which are still quite valuable after reaching the end of their service lives. Today, the EU prescribes a recycling quota of 50 percent of lithium-ion batteries. Furthermore, Li-ion batteries are not officially considered hazardous waste in the US, but the lead-acid batteries used in all diesel vehicles are.
  • The report compares a Tesla Model 3 with a 75 kWh battery pack to a Mercedes C220 diesel, an apples-to-oranges comparison. The Tesla vehicle’s power output is up to 473 hp, whereas that of the Mercedes is 194 hp. It’s also worth mentioning that the powerful Tesla is far from the most efficient EV available, whereas the C220 is one of the most efficient diesel vehicles on the German market.
  • The IFO authors inexplicably calculate CO2 emissions for Model 3 that are 16 percent higher than the official figures published by Germany’s Federal Environmental Agency.
  • The article uses figures from the old NEDC test regimen, which is famously inaccurate, and is in the process of being replaced by the newer WLTP standard. WirtschaftsWoche calls the figures used in the IFO article “fairy-tale values that have nothing in common with reality,” and asks why Dr. Sinn chose to work with “the outdated, demonstrably inferior laboratory standard, where even more appropriate standards such as WLTP or EPA and even empirical consumption values ​​are easily accessible for both vehicles.”
  • In its calculations of full-lifecycle emissions, the article includes the emissions from electricity generation for EVs, but does not include the emissions generated in producing and transporting the fuel for diesel vehicles.
  • The IFO writers assume that every German EV is powered by the average mix of electricity sources supplying the German grid. In fact, an increasing number of EV drivers use electricity from their own photovoltaic systems. Many German utility customers also have the option of purchasing 100 percent renewably-generated electricity.

As WirtschaftsWoche’s Stefan Hajek put it, the IFO article always assumes worst-case scenarios for EVs and best-case scenarios for diesel vehicles.

The purveyors of the Long Tailpipe myth often claim that this is an issue that’s been overlooked or ignored, but in fact, the issue has been discussed as long as modern EVs have been around, and has been covered very extensively by both the pro- and anti-EV media.

Several recent studies have reinforced the spurious nature of the Long Tailpipe argument. An April 2019 report from the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research Heidelberg (IFEU) found that “Electric vehicles are already at an advantage over burners today, sometimes more, sometimes less, and the lead will grow.”

The Fraunhofer Institute reported in March that EVs typically produce “28 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than a luxury-class diesel, up to 42 percent less than a small car petrol engine.”

A February report from the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) examined greenhouse gas emissions from the manufacturing of lithium-ion batteries, and found that “a typical electric car today produces just half of the greenhouse gas emissions of an average European passenger car.”

In 2017, a report from Belgium’s VUB University found that “electric cars emit significantly less greenhouse gases over their lifetimes than diesel engines, even when they are powered by the most carbon-intensive energy.”

In 2012, a detailed study from the Union of Concerned Scientists found that even if it were charged 100% from coal, an EV would still be cleaner than the average ICE vehicle.

Charged has reported on study after study after study after study after study after study that has reached similar conclusions (writer David Herron has published a digestible summary of the issue).

Unfortunately, as Jonathan Swift (apparently) said, “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.” Many media outlets reposted the IFO’s disingenuous document, and few of these are likely to issue corrections. Many people surely just read the headline and took it at face value. Fortunately, Focus and WirtschaftsWoche are popular and influential magazines, and one hopes that German EV advocates will soon be forwarding copies of their reports to policymakers.

Source: Focus, WirtschaftsWoche, electrive, Electrek

  • mipak

    AS I’ve said again and again World War III is a war of disinformation. Mostly brought to you by ICE lovers, Tesla Shorters, oil and gas companies, etc.

  • Luke William

    The “publication” actually says that fuels cells are the ecological route to move toward. I wonder if this will be the stance of all economies that are highly dependent on an automotive industry. Fuel cells are a better straw-man than BEVs because they are so much further away from commercial viability. They are still trying to slow the inevitable.

    • earl colby pottinger

      It is also important to know, BEVs can be charged at home using the grid but also if you have access with solar or wind. You can have your own solar panels/windmill or have an electrical plan that supplies you from a RE producer.

      If you go to Hydrogen fuel cells however, you will find yourself in the same situation as ICEs, you will have to go to fueling station fill up. You are back to the same same model we have now where a small number of companies control how much you pay to run your car.

      Where is the promise that Hydrogen will be cheap to the customer!

      • Luke William

        That’s a fantastic point. Somebody wants us to rely on middlemen.

      • Derek Kerton

        Also, currently in the USA, Hydrogen gas for FCVs is primarily made from extracted fossil fuel, in the form of our “cheap” Natural Gas, which is extracted by fracking.

        Yes, this energy source, too, could improve. Electrolysis can produce H2 gas without extracting and releasing ancient NG carbon stores from underground repositories. However, THAT will require lots of electricity, which may or may not be renewable.

        Basically, FCVs require a Rube Goldberg-esque energy supply chain, with a bunch of extra steps that BEVs don’t need. Also, a Fuel Cell cannot produce the bursts of energy a vehicle requires, so are not well-suited to the task. This is solved by (guess what) putting a freaking battery in the car anyways, to buffer the energy. Ultimately a FCV IS A slow and weak BEV with a H2 recharger on board!!

        Like Elon Musk, I’ll take a hard pass.

  • jstack6

    and who would ever believe or trust them?

  • Gary Munkhoff

    As long as the EV folks continue to allow the “green” discussion to focus only on CO2 emissions, there will always be reports such as this one emerging from ICE proponents.

    The comparison between the EV and the Ice cannot be measured with the single measurement of just CO2.

    Time to get real and to keep talking about the serious effects that the ICE has on people’s health, the horrendous environmental impacts of oil spills (Taylor oil spill, Deepwater Horizon and Exxon Valdez, to name a few), and the true cost of oil sale revenues on the world’s economic and political stability.

  • SJC

    Clinton and Gore got low sulfur diesel, before that not so much.