Why the electric car is not a miracle solution

Posted on Oct 21, 2022 2:49 PMUpdated October 21, 2022 3:11 pm

On June 8, 2022, the European Parliament voted to ban the sale of new thermal cars in 2035 on its territory. This measure is part of the European goals to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions with deadlines of -55% in 2030 and carbon neutrality in 2050.

With this decision, European policies are promoting the electric vehicle (EV) as a solution to reduce GHG emissions in the transport sector. Today EV sales are increasing almost exponentially, accounting for almost 10% of passenger car sales in Europe. This deadline of 2035 therefore seems in line with the current evolution of the automotive market and the climate emergency.

This forced march, however, leaves an impression of inevitability and, ultimately, an all-too-obvious solution to such complex planetary problems. It is necessary to be attentive to the environmental consequences, but also to economic and social issues.

Car pollution beyond the tailpipe

From an environmental point of view, many studies have focused on comparing the GHG emissions of the thermal car and its electric equivalent. Emissions during the electric car use phase directly depend on the emission level of the electric mixture used to recharge the vehicles.

In the case of France, electricity production is low in carbon because it is highly nuclearized, which is not the case for all European countries. The construction of the EV and especially of its battery being very GHG-emitting, the environmental benefits only appear if the car runs well enough. This doesn’t help to spread sobriety messages, but it is a big lever for climate mitigation.

By selecting only emissions released in the territory, carbon accounting methods are not suitable for solutions that induce pollution outside the national territory. With these accounting choices, the EV seems to be very effective in reducing the national carbon footprint… The desire to adopt it in France is therefore understandable, but its virtue does not apply on a planetary scale.

In addition to climate problems, the ban on the sale of thermal vehicles in 2035 should answer the issue of air quality present in most major cities in the world with local economic and public health impacts.

As the transport sector is one of the main sources of this pollution, EV represents an alternative way to reduce these emissions – a reduction that remains moderate, however, because the particles linked to the wear of tires, brakes and roads remain strong.

By imposing Low Emission Zones, many European cities force owners of polluting vehicles to buy a newer car that emits less local pollutants, potentially an electric vehicle.

Oil tax loss and EV aid

The electric revolution of the car fleet by 2035 will shake the entire economic system around the road. With the reduction in the consumption of fossil fuels, the revenue from the Tax on the Internal Consumption of Energy Products (TICPE) will decrease.

However, this tax, which raised €33.3 billion in 2019, is central to state and local government budgets. Replacing the TICPE with an electricity tax could offset some of the tax losses, but it would affect all families, including those who travel less by car.

The subsidy system implemented (bonus and recycling premium), which contributed a lot to the current level of electrification, will cost more and more. In 2020, it represented 700 million euros for 20% market share, including hybrid vehicles. By comparison, the 2018 “cycling and active mobility” plan calls for €350 million over seven years for cycling facilities.

The tax advantages and subsidies for the purchase of an electric vehicle now benefit more urban areas, which adopt this technology more quickly, due to favorable conditions. However, rural and peri-urban areas represent a major challenge in this race for electrification, with their inhabitants having no alternative but to use the car.

Tension markets and very uncertain costs

The State will therefore be strongly called upon to support companies and individuals in this transformation, it remains to be seen what the political option will be to redistribute this cost among taxpayers. Despite the installation of new electric generators, the increase in demand will greatly inflate the French electricity bill, especially if the residential sector also follows the path of electricity for heating. As black gold, white gold, lithium and most metals have become strategic resources to support electric mobility. However, strong demand and the geographical imbalance of deposits and exploration are creating tensions that will weaken the supply and prices of raw materials.

The electrification of Europe will therefore depend on the importation of these raw materials, leaving doubts about the ability to supply the entire European and global market with EVs at a reasonable price.

A climate dressing, far from the ecological remedy

The electrification of the car fleet is a precipitous race, based on an innovation that does not jeopardize the functioning of our society. If the EV is part of the carbon neutrality strategy for 2050, it will not be enough and will continue to maintain an unstable system dependent on a strong artificialization of the soil and the consumption of abundant resources and energy.

The climate emergency, with ambitious goals in 2030 and 2050, makes short-term solutions, such as electric vehicles, solvents, which will no longer be viable in 2100, namely due to the lack of natural resources beyond 2050. electric vehicle stifles potential action to change our car-based system. Promoting sobriety remains the safest and most natural solution with multiple environmental and social benefits.

The mobility system, spatial planning and lifestyles are, however, trapped in a decades-long inertia centered on speed and consumption. Despite the urgency of ending this ecocide model, reflections on the future of automobile territories, between urban centers and rural areas, remain slow.

The end of the thermal car in 2035 should not be synonymous with the systematic replacement by an electric car, but with a profound questioning of its place in our imagination and in our daily lives.

Alexis Poulhès, professor at the Ecole des Ponts, research engineer at the City Mobility Transport Laboratory, Ecole des Ponts ParisTech (ENPC)

Cyril François, Engineer in Environmental Engineering and PhD in Urban Planning from the Gustave Eiffel University

Leave a Comment