Zoom Image

Now more than ever: Rowan Atkinson in the role of Mr Bean on a Mini in London (photo from 2015)

Photo: Toby Melville / REUTERS

He is known for his signature role as Mr Bean, often roaring through England in bizarre sketches with a Mini. In real life, too, a lot revolves around the car for comedian Rowan Atkinson, who has driven in motorsport races several times and once collected the highest accident damage sum in British insurance history with his private McLaren F1. At the beginning of a guest article published in the Guardian on Saturday, Atkinson recalls that he had completed an Oxford degree in electrical engineering before his show career. He is also a pioneer of electric mobility: he bought his first hybrid 18 years ago, and nine years ago he bought a fully electric car (a BMW i3, according to press reports).

This is probably intended to take more seriously what Atkinson now has to say on the subject: He feels "increasingly a little tricked," he writes. I love electric cars," he still admits, and sees a great future for them. But if one delves deeper into the facts, they "do not quite appear to be the ecological panacea" to which they are elevated. Atkinson does not explain who is supposed to have asserted this absolute claim. But he lets it be known that he has a problem with the British government's goal of ending the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030 (five years before the combustion engine is phased out in the EU). The purchase of electric cars should be held back for the time being.

His main argument is the common lithium-ion batteries: "They are absurdly heavy, their production requires many rare earth metals and huge amounts of energy, and they only last about ten years." As a solution, Atkinson points to hydrogen drives or synthetic fuels, so-called e-fuels, such as those developed by Porsche in Chile. Because "the environmental problem with a gasoline engine is the gasoline, not the engine."

Are new cars like fast fashion?

He sees the biggest problem in the economic model of the automotive industry as the rapid switch to new cars, similar to "fast fashion" as a sign of a throwaway society. Today's cars could last for 30 years if they were cared for. In his opinion, we could be just as mobile if we kept the old vehicles, with drastically lower CO2 emissions from production.

Criticism of the throw-in was not long in coming. Yes, Atkinson has unfortunately been tricked, wrote Gniewomir Flis, an analyst and investor in climate protection technologies, on Twitter. "But from those with a vital interest in the construction of internal combustion engines and the supply of liquid fuels."

Flis points to advances in battery technology, to high recycling rates of cars (as opposed to disposable fashion) – but above all to the low share of production in the total emissions in the life cycle of a car: The majority of CO2 emissions are due to energy consumption while driving. Therefore, electric cars would have compensated for the disadvantage of the more complex construction, including the battery, after the first 21,000 kilometers, as the financial information service Reuters calculated; from then on, they would be better for the climate than cars with combustion engines. And that's why battery propulsion is also superior to the alternatives of hydrogen or e-fuels. Although they can potentially run on renewable energies, they require many times more of them. Atkinson only casually mentions that hydrogen is not really produced in a climate-friendly way today.

Rowan Atkinson, on the other hand, can feel confirmed with another statement by a new study in the journal "Nature Communications" , which was also reported by the "taz" on Saturday: A team led by physicist Lisa Winkler from Imperial College has investigated how the city of London could reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of its car traffic to a level that fits the climate target of global warming of a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius. Even bringing forward the phase-out of internal combustion engines to 2025 would therefore only make a minimal contribution to this, if emissions from the supply chain for batteries and raw materials are taken into account. However, it would be possible to reduce car traffic in Greater London by more than 80 percent, as early as 2027. The city administration is officially aiming for 27 percent fewer car kilometers by 2030, which is already unheard of radical by German standards.

Motorfan Atkinson is sober on this question: If you absolutely need a car, "you should buy an old one and drive as little as possible".