Why the electric car is not the miracle solution for getting around without polluting

“Two million electric vehicles produced in France by 2030.” Emmanuel Macron recalled this objective on Monday, October 17, when he went to the Paris Motor Show. Bonus, tariff shield… The President of the Republic had also announced a battery of measures in favor of electric cars the day before. The objective, according to the Head of State, is to “fulfill the objective for the climate, for the re-industrialization of the country and for our sovereignty”. However, from an environmental point of view, the electric car is not so virtuous. Franceinfo details why the only “transition to electric” thermal car does not offer a sustainable solution to clean up our trips.

Why the electric car is not completely “clean”

As franceinfo has already explained, an electric car pollutes. When it leaves the factory, even before being driven, it has an environmental footprint greater than that of an equivalent-sized thermal vehicle, summarizes Bertrand-Olivier Ducreux, transport and mobility engineer at Environmental and Energy Management (Ademe).

“That environmental footprint is much bigger for the electric car, mainly because of its battery.”

Bertrand-Oivier Ducreux, transport and mobility engineer at Ademe

in franceinfo

Cobalt, nickel, manganese, lithium… Electric car batteries require metals whose extraction is particularly polluting. The electric car therefore starts with a clear environmental lag on its thermal counterpart. This gap is only filled after 40,000 to 50,000 km of road, according to Ademe estimates. This capture occurs “as long as you have a french electric mix”that is, with a large share of electricity with low greenhouse gas emissions, such as nuclear, specifies Bertrand-Olivier Ducreux.

However, over its entire lifespan, an electric car driving in France has a carbon footprint that is two to three times lower than that of a similar thermal model. But a new disadvantage must still be highlighted: this estimate is only valid for batteries with less than 60 kWh, the equivalent of a Peugeot e208 or a Renault Mégane at most, with a range of around 400 km.

Because it’s too greedy on rare raw materials

Take the example of a Renault Zoé battery. To produce it, 7 kilos of lithium, 11 kilos of manganese, 11 kilos of cobalt and 34 kilos of nickel are needed. The total represents about 63 kilograms of metals, illustrated “Complement of research”, in France 2, in 2020.

These raw materials are found in limited quantities on our planet. Julien Pillot, economist, anticipates “usage conflicts” because the same resources are needed for wind turbines and photovoltaics. Furthermore, the risk is to replace dependence on oil-exporting countries with dependence on countries that extract rare metals, such as China.

For its cables and rotors, an electric vehicle also requires a much higher amount of copper than a thermal vehicle. For Marco Daturi, professor and researcher at the Catalysis and Spectrochemistry Laboratory at the University of Caen, this is a dead end.

“At the current rate of extraction, in twenty years we will have consumed almost all the available copper stock on Earth.”

Marco Daturi, researcher at the Catalysis and Spectrochemistry Laboratory at the University of Caen

in franceinfo

According to him, this means that“it is impossible to replace the fleet of internal combustion engines exclusively with electric cars” and that we can only do this in one “relatively low percentage”.

Because the ecological interest of electric only applies to light cars

“The carbon footprint of an electric vehicle increases almost in proportion to its weight, which itself is heavily impacted by the storage capacity of its battery.“, writes Ademe in a public notice published on October 10. The Agency encourages drivers to “choose a car with a battery that is suitable for majority use” and choose “the smallest and lightest vehicle model possible”.

Critics, therefore, logically emerged when Renault unveiled a stubby SUV on Monday as a new electric model of the mythical 4L. “It’s absurd to make an electric SUV”Judge Marco Daturi.

“In France, around 40% of vehicles are SUVs. It is absolutely necessary to rebalance that, to move towards much lighter vehicles.”

Pierre Leflaive, Transport Manager at Climate Action Network

in franceinfo

Despite this novelty of the diamond brand contradicting Ademe’s recommendations, Bertrand-Olivier Ducreux detects positive signs. “Until last year, the best-selling electric car in France was the Tesla Model 3, a very sophisticated car, which is very expensive”. According to him, “many people had an elitist prejudice about the electric car”. This view tends to change. In the first eight months of 2022, the five best-selling electric cars in France are the Peugeot e208, Fiat 500e, Dacia Spring, Renault Zoé and Renault Twingo E-TECH. He notes that they are usually cars that are not SUVs, that cost less than €30,000 before public aid and weigh between 1,200 and 1,250 empty kilos. “These cars have found their market and show an industrial reality”says the engineer.

Because the electric car is only virtuous over short distances

Listening to them, political leaders or automaker executives consider the “transition to electric” as the replacement of the thermal car by the electric car. “We will soon have cars that will exceed 600 km of autonomy”said tuesday france info Carlos Tavares, CEO of Stellantis. And to add: “As long as consumers want to buy autonomy, my mission is [d’y] reply.”

“If we replace a thermal vehicle with an electric vehicle, we will not achieve our climate goals”notes Pierre Leflaive of the Climate Action Network.

“The simple replacement of thermal by electric is not satisfactory.”

Bertrand-Olivier Ducreux

in franceinfo

Ademe, insists the engineer, highlights the small electric car, “an effective and relevant tool”for daily trips within a radius of a few tens of kilometers. “Until recently, the thermal vehicle was the Swiss Army knife of mobility, it could do everything. We can’t stay with this model”, believes Bertrand-Olivier Ducreux. he calls a “behavior interruption” compared to a period when “we partially chose our vehicle for the few most restrictive trips of the year” : Going on vacation several hundred kilometers from home, with a lot of luggage, one or more children, and sometimes bicycles on the roof.

For those long trips, he sees the electric car as a link in the chain. Instead of doing the entire trip by car, it would be a matter of taking a bus or a car to get to a station, for example. From there, possibly, public transport would make it possible to take a train from the main line. Once there, renting an electric car will allow you to go to your vacation spot and drive within a 40-50 km radius.

Because it’s the place of the car (electric or not) that needs to be reviewed

The electric car is just a “brick among a wider and more diverse range of mobility services”, writes Ademé. This projection collides with regional planning, which favored roads and automobiles, leaving the rail network to erode. The result: the personal car is one of the main means of daily transport for 72% of French people, while half of the trips are less than 5 km, reports Ademe.

“Because of social choices, political choices, part of the population must use a car. We can’t blame them.”

Marco Daturi

in franceinfo

Like Ademe, the chemical researcher pleads not for a single solution, but for “solutions that will be inserted into the fabric of the territory”. The project is as ambitious as it is delicate. “Challenging the whole car in society, investing massively in the train, long distance but also short distance, reducing the distances between home and work, reducing urban sprawl… It is a politically more difficult path than betting everything on the electric car”analyzes Julien Pillot, economist, researcher at Inseec, associated with CNRS.

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This profound change is, however, necessary, assesses Pierre Leflaive. He recalls that 13 million people in France are in “precarious mobility situation”, that is, without access to a means of individual or collective transport, according to the Foundation for Nature and Man. For the Climate Action Network’s Transport Manager, reducing the car fleet does not mean reducing travel. According to him, it is about offering more opportunities to those in need. In this view, “Rail will be the spearhead of the transport sector transition and that means investing massively”he watches.

“The challenge is not to move less well. On the contrary, it is to adapt better to our needs and, in the end, have better mobility for everyone.”

Pierre Leflaive

in franceinfo

It is still necessary, admits Pierre Leflaive, to improve the quality of the alternatives: punctuality, regularity, price, but also comfort. According to the head of the SNCF, Jean-Pierre Farandou, it takes an envelope of 100 billion euros over fifteen years to double the train’s share of travel. It would include investments to upgrade the aging network, the development of RER and new high-speed lines. Reply from Clément Beaune, Minister of Transport: “I really want that if we free up budgetary resources – and we will free up some – we put them as a priority in this transport to work, in everyday life most of the time and in the network. The electrification of the car fleet and the revitalization of the train can make public accounts unfeasible. The challenge for the state will be to maintain the load.

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