My mind wanders a lot. There have been idle moments when, presented with a slice of birthday cake on a plastic or paper plate, I have wondered about the environmental-friendliness of the plate. Reading about Joe Nguyen’s travails in getting his Tesla model S licensed in Singapore, I started to wonder about cake on disposable plate again.
Joe Nguyen’s story can be found on Stuff.tv, in their 1 March 2016 article Be prepared for these roadblocks if you want to drive a Tesla in Singapore. It’s further carried on mothership.sg here. The bottom line was that Nguyen ended up not enjoying the $15,000 rebate that eco-friendly cars are expected to receive, but was charged an extra $15,000 as tax for a non-fuel efficient car.
It was found to be non-fuel efficient based on tests conducted in Singapore. It appears that the testing authority first worked out how much electricity the car uses, and then converted it to carbon dioxide emission. The published stories indicate that there are questions to be asked about the methods used in testing; Nguyen did not think the finding of 444 watt hour per kilometre to be correct if the tests had been conducted properly.
I am no expert on these highly technical things, but I thought that the story also highlights some conceptual issues which are worth discussing. Primarily, they should never have taken this approach of looking at energy consumption and converting it backwards to emissions.
An electric car is not just another car
True, even electric cars consume energy. You want to move a hunk of metal or plastic composite from point A to point B, you need energy. It’s not as if a “green car” like the Tesla uses no energy at all. But using energy is not actually the issue when it comes to environmental impact. It is what sort and quantity of emissions are released into the environment when the energy is generated.
For a “normal” car with an internal combustion engine, the energy is generated within the car itself, and so measuring the emissions the car produces is a straightforward and accurate measure of the environmental impact of the car.
(Actually, not quite. The car needs to run on refined petroleum products. The refining process itself can generate emissions, as does the transportation of both the crude and refined petroleum product, well before it is pumped into the car’s gas tank. To be complete, we need to add in the environmental impact of these prior processes. But how do we measure these elements? Much depends on what sort of crude was first used — some are dirtier than others — and how far the petroleum product had to travel before it got to the petrol station.)
Electric cars draw their energy from mains supply. So the question that needs to be considered is this: what sort of emissions were put out by the power plants when they first generated the electricity? Immediately, you’ll realise that it will probably vary greatly from one country to another. Some countries still generate electricity from coal, particularly brown coal (very dirty!). Other countries produce much of their mains electricity from wind or solar power. (Wikipedia page on fossil-fuel power stations).
The means that the same Tesla, when driven in different countries, will have different environmental impacts. But it’s not the Tesla’s fault. It is entirely due to the upstream power producers.
Tax the source
This leads us to see that taxing the energy-consuming product (e.g. the electric car) for environmental impact is not the smartest thing to do. By the same token, giving rebates to the consuming product is not smart either. The thing to tax is the hydrocarbon fuel itself, based on its carbon (and perhaps nitrogen) content, and the machine that burns it (the energy-producing product), based on its efficiency and output of emissions.
Some countries have implemented a carbon tax. The details vary from one place to another, but generally it is a tax on the fuel based on its carbon content and/or its energy content.
But the same fuel can lead to different levels of emissions depending on the machine that burns it. Properly therefore, there should be a second tax on the machines, calibrated to the “clean-ness” of the burning. For example, machines fitted with catalytic scrubbers release less toxic emission. Thus, a tax on the internal combustion engine, or the boilers in power stations and factories can be justified.
However, in the case of an electric car, or an electric rice cooker or electric fan, asking the appliance what its emissions-equivalent is, and taxing it, is a rather roundabout way of doing things. An across-the-board tax aimed at the source (the fuel and the machines that did the burning) and based on a simple principle is far less distorting than a variable series of different taxes on different end-user appliances. A simple, clearly conceptualised tax is also better able to cope with new inventions coming on stream.
Unable to cope with the new
Readers who have read the original story on stuff.tv and mothership.sg about Joe Nguyen’s tussle with officialdom would have grasped the point: the bureaucracy here does not score well when it comes to coping with anything innovative. This is true as much with objects as with ideas.
I won’t belabour this point too much — it is obvious to most people living here — except to say that a lot of it has to do with with the top-down nature of authority and decision-making in this place. Junior officials don’t feel they have the freedom to be making creative decisions, or don’t have the self-confidence to even propose any. Anything out of the ordinary is thus pushed upwards for direction, but the upper levels — as in anywhere else — have only limited bandwidth to deal with the many issues reaching them.
Worst of all, a suffocating blanket of conservatism sits on the whole state apparatus, resulting in a huge bias towards incremental change rather than being bold and creative. But as this Tesla case shows, when there is presented a conceptually new product, you need a conceptually new approach to grapple with it. You can’t just apply or merely extend old measures and methods to it.
Back to the cake-on-a-plate problem. The prevailing orthodoxy is that plastic is environmentally unsound. We even extend the same negative perception to paper plates. Of course, paper plates have their own problems: the source of pulp can be troubling, and the surface of the plate may still be coated with a thin film of plastic to make it water-resistant.
Both plastic and paper plates create a trash problem, which in turn leads to either a landfill or incineration issue.
The “greener” glow is usually cast on ceramic plates, reusability and washing, but I wonder about that too. Water isn’t free. It takes energy (from fossil fuel mostly) to make clean water and to pump it around. And what about the detergent we use to wash the plates? It takes more energy in the sewage plants (and to make the chemicals injected into the process) to clean the water up again. Every time we use energy, we tend to burn hydrocarbons causing more emission.
So what does the balance sheet really say? Is it so bad to use a disposable plate? I honestly don’t know, but while my hunch remains that disposable plates are greater sinners, I wouldn’t assume that the prevailing orthodoxy is always right.
As with electric cars, it can be difficult to pinpoint how much greener one thing is compared to another.
Addendum, 6 March 2016
I see a report in Channel NewsAsia wherein the Land Transport Authority was quoted for its explanation.
“As for all electric vehicles, a grid emission factor of 0.5 g CO2/Wh was also applied to the electric energy consumption. This is to account for CO2 emissions during the electricity generation process, even if there are no tail-pipe emissions. The equivalent CO2 emission of Mr Nguyen’s car was 222g/km, which is in the CEVS surcharge band,” the spokesperson added.
Under the revised CEVS, Mr Nguyen’s Tesla falls in the C3 band, which accounts for cars with 216 to 230 g/km, and carries with it a S$15,000 surcharge.
— Today, 4 March 2016, LTA on Tesla: CO2 emissions for electric cars start at power grid. Link.
The authorities applied the test finding of 444 watt hour per kilometre (Wh/km) to a grid emission factor of 0.5 grams CO2/Wh to obtain the result of 222g/km.
[The LTA spokesperson] added that the Tesla is not the first fully electric car where grid emission factor was applied. A Peugeot Ion, for instance, was registered in July 2014 and received the maximum CEVS rebates, the spokesperson said.
“This is the first time a Tesla Model S has been tested for emissions,” the spokesperson said.
A few things become clearer in the light of this statement, but more questions remain. If the Peugeot Ion managed to get a full rebate, and the same test method was applied to the Tesla, how credible is it that vastly different results were obtained? This supports Nguyen’s contention that the testing itself was questionably done.
Secondly, it is apparent now that only carbon dioxide emission is taken into account. Nitrogen oxides emission, for which petrol and diesel cars are greater culprits than natural-gas burning power stations, were not in consideration. Omitting this angle creates a bias in favour of the internal combustion engine.
Thirdly, and the very point of my article, why apply the tax onto the appliance? If we apply it on an electricity-using car, why not on the electric kettle or on every installed air-conditioner? Applying it at source (i.e. on the electricity generator) is so much less distorting.