When is it more eco-friendly to switch from a petrol car to an electric one?

This text was taken from the “Courrier de la planete” of June 7, 2022. To register, click here.

The transition to electric vehicles is well underway. On the scale of Quebec society, a date has been set for this: 2035. But on an individual scale, many drivers are wondering about the date of their “electrification”.

Eric Vandal, a reader of the Courrier de la Planète, wants to go electric for his next car. He currently drives a 2010 Pontiac Vibe with a 1.8 liter engine. But which option is better for the environment: change now or wait?

First, it is useful to refer to life cycle analyzes comparing electric cars with traditional combustion engine cars. These studies take everything from extracting the resources needed for manufacturing into consideration to recycling end-of-life vehicles, including their use.

One observation always comes back to this: early in their life, electric vehicles have a larger carbon footprint than traditional vehicles. The difference lies in the materials contained in electric motors and batteries, such as lithium, the extraction of which consumes a lot of energy. The “carbon” delay is then recovered over the kilometers travelled.

Let’s take a specific example to illustrate the emissions gap attributable to manufacturing: when leaving the factory, a Tesla Model 3 (electric) already accumulates 12 tons of CO2, against 7 tons of a Toyota RAV4 (traditional), according to an analysis by the University of Toronto.

“equivalent point”

Over its entire life cycle, however, a car powered by renewable electricity – as is the case in Quebec – has a carbon footprint about 80% lower than a traditional car, according to a published study. in 2021 by the American organization International Council on Clean Transport (ICCT).

The “equivalence point”, where traditional and electric vehicles have the same carbon footprint, is highly dependent on the models being compared. However, according to a Quebec study carried out in 2016 by the International Reference Center for the Life Cycle of Products, Processes and Services (CIRAIG) in some representative models, it was 32,000 km.

“A new electric vehicle is interesting when you do a lot of mileage, because you quickly offset the emissions associated with the production of the vehicle,” explains Andréanne Brazeau, mobility analyst at Équiterre. And also for the fact that the old vehicle will certainly end up in the hands of a person who drives less and therefore the vehicle will also emit less. »

If Mr. Vandal wants to come up with the best choice for the planet, he must also consider the context of scarcity currently observed in the electric vehicle market. Consumers have to wait several months, even more than a year, as demand is strong.

The owner of a fuel-efficient vehicle can therefore keep it a little longer knowing that other drivers, driving fuel-hungry vehicles, will be able to further reduce their emissions by buying a zero-emission vehicle instead – if they choose to actually buy electric…

“When you have a vehicle, of course it’s best to extend its life as long as possible,” advises Brazeau generally. On the occasion of the replacement, it also suggests that drivers take a moment to assess their real transport needs and favor small models.

An answer meant to change

It is clear that vehicles do not only harm the environment in terms of climate: they also contribute to the exploitation of natural environments, the creation of waste, air pollution, etc.

According to CIRAIG’s life cycle analysis – which also looked at aspects other than GHG emissions – electric vehicles are less harmful to the environment in all categories, except in terms of mineral resource depletion, where they fare better. slightly less than traditional vehicles.

In short, the answer to Vandal’s question might be to wait a bit before buying an electric vehicle, unless it has particularly high mileage.

However, that answer could change in the coming years: the ICCT predicts that battery production will be 20% less carbon intensive by 2030. It also estimates that battery recycling could “significantly” reduce associated emissions. Which undeniably tilts the scales to one side.

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