Are electric cars really green? –

Electric vehicles powered by low-emission electricity offer the greatest decarbonisation potential for ground transport on a life-cycle basis. » At first glance, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) seems enthusiastic about the electrification of the car fleet, in the last opus of its latest report devoted to “solutions” against climate change (Green ). A good remedy, provided you meet several conditions that are still unattainable in most cases today, climate experts remind.

“Over its lifetime, an electric car driven in France has a carbon impact that is 2 to 3 times lower than a thermomobile”, the Agency for Ecological Transition (Ademe) calculated its latest statement on the issue, published on Wednesday. However, the public establishment is quick to point out that this figure only applies in France, where the energy is less carbon-intensive than in other countries – elsewhere electricity is often produced from gas or coal. And this on the condition that its battery is of “reasonable” capacity (beyond 60 kilowatt-hours (kWh), the environmental interest is not guaranteed) and that one takes the whole life of the vehicle as a reference. The last one closes the door.

A “carbon debt” to pay off

“Even before driving a single kilometre, the electric car has almost twice the emissions of a thermal vehicle”; In other words, it starts with one “carbon debt”explains David Marchal, Deputy Director of Ademe Programs.

The batteries in electric vehicles, which account for half of the energy required for their production, concentrate the majority of the negative impacts on the environment. Cobalt, lithium, copper … we find a bit of everything in these heavy batteries, which contain more than 200 kg of minerals on average, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). That is six times more than for a thermal vehicle. A significant part of these minerals is mined in Russia or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the protection of the environment and human rights are difficult to guarantee.

The weight and composition of the batteries in question

Poisoning of fresh water reserves, artificialization and loss of biodiversity, toxicity to humans, radioactive pollution, occupation of agricultural land… The extraction and transformation of raw materials is much more polluting than for the fossil car. Especially since the recycling of batteries today is limited. If the French government is happy with it “80% of lithium battery components are already recyclable”the current proportion of truly recycled batteries in the world is barely around 5%, although almost all lead-acid batteries in vehicles with internal combustion engines are recycled.

Once on the road, it’s still the battery that determines whether the electric car will be able to repay the carbon debt accrued during manufacturing. “It’s paid back quite quickly when we’re talking about a city car, whereas in the case of a large vehicle produced to mimic thermal vehicles, it will take many kilometers of driving, or it may even be impossible.”says David Marchal.

© Alban Leduc / Green

Air pollution and noise pollution still on the menu

The electric car does not currently manage to remove the air and sound pollution associated with the car. Thanks to advances in reducing fine particles in the exhaust, the majority of air pollution caused by cars now comes from brake wear, tire friction on the road and resuspension of fine particles already present on the roads. Thanks to better technology, electric vehicles can reduce particulate emissions from braking, but increase emissions from tyre/road friction by almost 14% and resuspended by 8% (in terms of PM10, particles whose diameter is less than 10 micrometres).

Likewise, a large part of a car’s noise pollution comes from the friction of the tires on the road and not from the internal combustion engine. Beyond 40 km/h, the noise reduction from electric cars does not exceed 1.5 decibels (dB).

Amount of particles emitted outside the exhaust by vehicle type. © Breathe

An excuse not to change our bad habits

“We knew we had to get rid of fossil fuels and we tried to make people believe we were going to solve the problem with metals. It is wrong ! », rages Aurore Stéphant, engineer in mining geology and member of the SystExt association. The first observations made in Sweden and Norway ahead of this market show that the development of electric vehicles does not call into question our mobility habits, but rather causes a rebound effect. Electric cars are bought there first as an additional vehicle and not as a replacement for a thermal car. In Norway, 10 to 20% of trips in an electric car even replace trips made in advance by public or non-motorized transport.

Among the solutions: reduce the number and size of cars

“The electric car changes (virtually) nothing in terms of space consumption, physical inactivity and its health effects and accidents”, Remember Aurélien Bigo, researcher in the transport energy transition and author of a thesis on the subject. “A technology-focused, energy-intensive transition is the opposite of what needs to be done in terms of sobriety”he explains to Green. He favors intermediate vehicles that are more efficient over short distances, such as bicycle cars, wagons or other hybrid pedal-powered machines.

Intermediate modes of transport, so many alternatives to the car. © Frederic Heran

“It is advisable to choose a vehicle model that is as small and light as possible, suitable for commuting”, Ademe approves in his latest statement about the electric car. If we are currently witnessing a shift in the electric market towards smaller top models, there is still a long way to go to convince new users (mostly well-off due to high investment costs) to buy smaller cars. But above all, warns Ademe, we will need “rethinking the car’s place on our journeys”.

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