rethinking the narrative in the light of ecological crises

In Europe, as in the world, the purchase of electric cars is booming. However, some voices question their ecological interest. Not as green as it looks, dirtier than diesel, greedy in rare earths… The electric car, as polluting as thermal? Beyond the opposition, it is a whole new story to be imagined.

In Europe, sales of electric cars have increased sixfold between 2018 and 2021, from just over 200,000 units sold to 1.2 million in just four years. A dynamic driven forward by the development of charging stations, the establishment of purchase subsidies and by the increase in fuel prices. The EU has even decided thatban the sale of thermal vehicles from 2035.

The trend is not just European. Three times more electric cars were sold in 2021 than in 2018 worldwide: 4.8 million units compared to 1.5 million. These numbers may seem huge, but are low compared to the sales of internal combustion cars: more than 75 million in 2021. Does the production and use of these millions of new electric cars make it possible to fight ecological crises effectively, despite their costs? in resources and energy? The answer, as is often the case in ecology, is more complex than a simple yes or no.

A fairly effective weapon against emissions

The fight against global warming is only one of the many ecological crises sweeping across our planet, but it is the most talked about. Reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is the electrification of the car and more generally transport, one of the levers for human action. Almost a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions are due to transport, of which slightly less than half comes from land transport. that Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) even declares: “ Electric vehicles powered by low-emission electricity offer the greatest decarbonisation potential for ground transport on a life-cycle basis. »

The life cycles of electric cars, Thomas Gibon knows them well. He is an engineer at the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST) in industrial ecology, a discipline that assesses the environmental impact of products, services, technologies, whose main tool is life cycle analysis. ” It brings together all the flows of materials, energy, waste, emissions that we want directly or indirectly, in connection with a final product, whether it is a car, a TV or even a territory. “, defines the researcher. This makes it possible to get a complete picture of the production of a product and to understand its environmental consequences.

The Climobil site developed by Thomas Gibon and his colleagues makes it possible to compare the complete life cycle of an electric vehicle and a thermal vehicle, like here a Peugeot 508 and a Tesla model 3. It will soon be updated with new models. © Screenshot / RFI

In 2017, while the German media sharply criticized the ecological impact of the electric car, the Luxembourg government called on LIST to answer a parliamentary question about the reality of these accusations. It is Thomas Gibon who must be responsible for answering them. From this request follows an internet siteClimobil, particularly intuitive, which makes it possible to compare greenhouse gas emissions between different models of thermal and electric cars, based on life cycle.

In the vast majority of cases, the electric car is always more virtuous. In detail, it is mainly the release of greenhouse gases during use that will burden the life cycle of the thermal vehicle, while for the electric car it is emissions during manufacture, especially from the battery. ” This is a phenomenon observed for most new low-carbon technologies: emissions due to infrastructure are higher than emissions due to use. It is the same for wind turbines, for solar panels says the engineer.

Green electricity and rebound effect

The decarbonisation of the electricity produced is a huge challenge: it is the parameter that will highlight the difference between thermal and electric. ” If you recharge your car in France, most greenhouse gases will be emitted during the manufacture of the car, because electricity production is very carbon-free in France. If it is recharged in Poland, the majority of greenhouse gases will be concentrated during use, as for a thermal vehicle, because Polish electricity is produced by coal-fired power plants. “Summarizes Thomas Gibon.

The development of the electric car also raises fears of a rebound effect, this principle according to which the savings obtained thanks to the improvement of a product lead to its over-consumption, canceling the same savings. In the case of the electric car, for example, the coming drop in its price and its low running costs risk increasing the number of kilometers traveled by each individual and therefore nullifying the ecological gain of his electrification.

Resources to mine

But the fight against carbon emissions is far from the only ecological challenge of this century. The decline in biodiversity associated with environmental degradation, soil, air and water pollution or even the scarcity of the latter are all crises that can be exacerbated by the electric car. The extraction of raw materials for the manufacture of batteries is a highly polluting activity, even though the resources, such as lithium, are vast. From an ethical point of view, cobalt miningmainly located in the Democratic Republic of Congo, raises questions.

A child breaks rock mined for cobalt at a copper and cobalt mine in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo, May 23, 2016.
A child breaks rock mined for cobalt at a copper and cobalt mine in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo, May 23, 2016. AFP – JUNIOR KANNAH

In this context, it is urgent to establish extraction standards that are more environmentally friendly and more ethical. Electrification, which is crucial in the fight against global warming, will also require increased use of batteries: establishing efficient recycling channels is another major challenge. Recycling that can be facilitated with simple rules, explains Thomas Gibon. ” It is necessary to impose on the eco-design of the batteries that they can be easily removed, so that the various components can be easily removed. It is necessary to prohibit the disposal of batteries in landfills, so that they must be recycled, which means extending the responsibility of battery manufacturers to recycle them at the end of their life. », insists the engineer.

Paradigm shift

The car, electric or not, will always be problematic, regardless of what efforts the sector initiates. Space consumption in cities and in the countryside, costs of raw materials for the manufacture of roads, production of fine particles from tire wear, extraction of resources, accidents, the negative impacts are numerous. They are also noted by Aurélien Bigo, associate researcher at the Energy and Prosperity Chair at the Louis-Bachelier Institute.

The researcher specializing in the transport energy transition, like Thomas Gibon, challenge the paradigm dominates the private car. ” The car is a tradition. In France alone, there are millions of people who are employed thanks to the car. So it will be very difficult to get out. It is much easier to ask the question of what car I want than what mobility I want », explains the engineer based in Luxembourg.

In this fight against the narrative of the individual car, the political powers have enormous power. In particular, they can develop public transport, multiply and secure cycle paths, create carpools to get to work and support soft mobility. The solutions are there, they exist. It is up to politicians and citizens to adopt them, and it is up to the media to change the narrative about the individual car.

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