A prominent energy expert revealed over the weekend that a misleading anti-EV document spread across UK media was created by a public relations firm likely linked to Aston Martin.
Dubbed ‘Astongate’ by energy expert, investor and Bloombrg New Energy Finance founder Michael Liebrich in a lengthy LinkedIn post, the emerging scandal relates to a flurry of articles that reported on the results of a PDF brochure that claimed to have found that electric vehicles only ‘pay back’ the emissions used in manufacture after a lengthy distance, quoting in several articles as 50,000 miles (just over 80,000 kilometres).
The document (misleadingly referred to as a “study” in those articles) referenced was comprehensively debunked by Dutch EV researcher Auke Hoekstra, in a detailed Twitter thread.
New 'study' claims it takes 48k miles for electric vehicles to emit less CO2 than gasoline cars.
But it's just a misleading brochure.
Reality is closer 16k miles.
— AukeHoekstra (@AukeHoekstra) November 27, 2020
Hoekstra found that the document misleads in several ways. Combustion emissions are understimated because the production of the car’s fuel is excluded, and laboratory tests are referenced (notoriously unreliable, though less so recently) instead of real-world emissions.
Electric vehicle emissions are extrapolated from a single study of Polestar electric vehicles. The document also claims biofuels are emissions free, which Hoekstra details is a false assumption (Hoekstra also details why “e-fuels”, generated using electricity, are so much more energy intensive than simply electrifying the car itself).
The result is this corrected graph:
1) Both cars produced in same Chinese factory: line Volvo start bit higher.
2) Realistic fuel use: line Volvo steeper.
3) UK electricity mix (cleaner than EU!) over lifetime: pretty flat line Polestar.
=> Break even from 78k km to 25k km. pic.twitter.com/zUGKhsVp1H
— AukeHoekstra (@AukeHoekstra) November 27, 2020
The detail of when the “break even” point occurs for electric vehicles is, of course, irrelevant to the broader argument in favour of electrification – they tend towards decarbonisation, faster on cleaner grids, whereas combustion engine vehicles will never be low emissions.
However, the efforts to exagerate the length of time required for EVs to be lower emissions than combustion vehicles was repeated across several widely-read media outlets in the United Kingdom, particularly within News Corp outlets, with the intent of downlaying their importane to climate efforts.
Polestar issued a response strongly criticising the document and the media articles, reiterating that “electric vehicles are the future and offer a route to carbon neutrality, something fossil fuelled vehicles can never acheive”.
Polestar havsbeen demanding greater transparency from car manufactuers on their life-cycle analyses. Indeed the Polestar report cited in these articles was published as part of this process of placing increasing pressure on combustion car manufacturers to be more open and transparent, which makes its use as part of a deceptive campaign ironic.
— James Murray (@James_BG) November 30, 2020
Though Liebrich noted Aston Martin’s logo on the brochure referenced, he wondered about the company listed as the author: “Clarendon Communications”. After some digging within registers of corporations in the UK, Liebrich found that “Clarendon Communications has one director, Rebecca Caroline Stephens. Most PR companies have several directors”.
After discovering a shared last name between several key accounts associated with the company and Aston Martin, Liebrich checked the land register and discovered a shared address between an Aston Martin executive and the director of the PR Firm.
“This was a sock puppet PR company in the name of the wife (presumably) of the company’s Director of Global Government and Corporate Affairs. Aston Martin is a quoted company. There are governance rules. Were they broken?,” asked Liebrich.
Though Aston Martin’s logo features on the PDF as a member of a larger coalition of companies, it isn’t made clear that the author of the report is a PR firm serving as a front for the company, as is suggested by Liebrich’s investigation. If the report had been published under Aston Martin’s name, rather than a front group, it certainly would have been received differently. Greenpeace’s ‘Unearthed’ group was told by Aston Martin that the shared address was simply a coincidence.
Ok, on #Astongate.
The previously unknown PR firm behind a report slamming electric cars was set up by someone who lives at the same address as the head of corporate affairs at Aston Martin BUT was not commissioned by them, the company just told me. @MLiebreich @LeoHickman
— Damian Kahya (@damiankahya) November 30, 2020
The scandal comes directly after the UK government announced a 2030 ban on the sale of combustion engine vehicles, alienating some parts of the conservative political parties and press in the country.
“Having cancelled its EV programme earlier this year, Aston Martin was planning to start selling EVs some time near 2030, not stop selling petrol cars. You can see why management might be under enormous pressure, why it might have cut corners in its desperation to challenge the 2030 deadline before it beds in politically and is set in stone”, wrote Liebrich.
A flurry of negative articles stemming from UK climate denier group ‘The Global Warming Policy Foundation’ also attempted to cast doubt on the decarbonisation of transport through electrification.
Though details are still emerging, this is likely to become a signfiicant embarassment for Aston Martin, as the company tries to talk up its climate and environment credentials with investors.
Ketan Joshi has been at the forefront of clean energy for eight years, starting out as a data analyst working in wind energy, and expanding that knowledge base to community engagement, climate science and new energy technology. He writes for The Driven’s parent site, RenewEconomy, and has also written for the Guardian, The Monthly, ABC News and has penned several hundred blog posts digging into climate and energy issues, building a position as a respected and analytical energy commentator in Australia. He’s spoken at the Ethics Centre IQ2 debates on the need for urgent decarbonisation, he’s served as an subject matter expert on national television, and has a wide following on social media around energy and climate.