Are electric cars really green?

Oh, 4L! Whether you drove it when you were younger or one of your parents or grandparents drove it when they were young, you know it so well you could draw it with your eyes closed. Building on its fame, Renault revealed the electric version of this legendary model during the motor show that opened this week.

But there’s a good chance you’ll have a hard time recognizing it. Sign of a change in times, the vehicle is a far cry from the 500 or 700 kg small car we knew a few decades ago. It is now an impressive electric SUV that spans more than 4 meters in length.

Something to revive the debate: is the electric car really green? That’s good, Ademe has just published a new note on the subject.

This small report does not bring anything fundamentally new, but has the advantage of summarizing the state of knowledge about the electric vehicle, in a context where the technological shift towards the latter is now registered.

In fact, the sale of new thermal cars (running on petrol or diesel) will be banned in Europe from 2035. Until then, European standards require manufacturers to sell an increasing proportion of 100% electric vehicles, subject to fines. However, this strategy is implemented for ecological reasons, namely the reduction of transport’s contribution to global warming.

Differentiate manufacturing and operations

So is the electric car green? Adem’s answer is both clear and nuanced. Claire, because the agency says yes, she might be greener than the others. Its carbon impact over its lifetime is thus “2 to 3 times lower than for a similar thermal model”, writes the board. But her answer remains nuanced because she reminds us that her green character depends on several conditions.

The electric car is two to three times more polluting to produce, but ten times less polluting to use

The main problem lies in the intensity of the use of the car over its entire life. Because the black point is its battery. Its manufacture actually requires the extraction of many metals, both to make the cells and to assemble the battery.

This whole process is very energy intensive. So much so that the production of an electric car has a carbon footprint that is two to three times higher than its thermal equivalent. In manufacturing stricto sensu, the electric car is therefore clearly the loser.

The big difference from a climatic point of view naturally occurs during operation. The battery-powered vehicle can be recharged with energy of renewable origin and therefore low carbon. If it is recharged using electricity produced from low CO2 power plants2as is currently the case in France thanks to nuclear power and hydraulics, the carbon footprint in the use phase is ten times lower than cars running on hydrocarbons.

A debt that must be repaid

“Over the course of the kilometers, this advantage first makes it possible to ‘repay’ the original carbon debt compared to its thermal equivalent, then to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases generated by driving the vehicle.”sums up Ademe.

If we take out the calculator, the electric car is two to three times more polluting to produce, but ten times less polluting to use, which leads to the result of a CO2 footprint that is two to three times lower than the thermal vehicle. The carbon footprint essentially occurs in the use phase, when the vehicle burns oil or consumes electrons.

“The carbon impact of an electric vehicle increases almost proportionally to its weight” – Ademe

Something to remember – if it was necessary again – that the electric car is only interesting if we use renewable or carbon-free energy to drive it. Recharging your car with electricity from a coal-fired power station has no ecological interest. Considering the production’s carbon footprint, the result is even worse than choosing a thermal vehicle.

However, one of the contributions of the Ademe note is to specify the interest of the electric car (or not) according to several parameters, including the size of the vehicle, the capacity of the battery and the intensity of use. The car’s environmental interest varies greatly since “the carbon impact of an electric vehicle increases almost proportionally to its weight”.

To use the logic of the “carbon debt” presented above, with a small electric city car equipped with a 22 kWh battery (like the electric Twingo), this is offset after 20,000 km. For a compact car with a 60 kWh battery, compensation for the emissions gap with its thermal equivalent driving requires 70,000 km. This figure increases to more than 100,000 km for a large electric vehicle with a capacity of 100 kWh.

This information is fundamental because weight is the main problem in the current electrification of the automotive industry. The new 4L, for example, has a 42 kWh battery. But the best-selling electric car in France last year, the Tesla Model 3, has a battery with a capacity of about 70 kWh. The electric does not escape fashion with the “all SUV”, which characterizes the sale of new thermal and hybrid cars.

Ademe thus recommends favoring small electric cars, urban type, which meet the majority of car use: short distances such as daily home-work trips. For long distances, the public agency encourages alternative solutions such as the train to be favoured.

An equation more complex than an engine

Something to keep in mind that the electric vehicle is only one aspect of the complex equation of the ecological transition in transport. This equation – sometimes called the Kaya equation – has several parameters: the number of kilometers driven (the less you do, the less you pollute), the type of transport used for the kilometers driven (public transport is less polluting than most individual means of transport) , vehicle filling (increasing it makes it possible to reduce the number of cars for the same number of people transported), and finally the energy efficiency of the vehicles (this is where the electric car comes in compared to the thermal vehicle).

Embarking on a massive policy of equipping electric vehicles risks leading to ignoring the car model, which causes problems: urban sprawl, traffic jams, accidents, etc.

In other words, the electric vehicle only makes it possible to replace oil with renewable energy, but does not remove the other criticisms of the car. Among them the very individualistic use (the vehicle’s occupancy rate is about 1.3 passengers per vehicle) or the fact that it is a vehicle calibrated to make trips of more than 500 kilometers, but that it is mostly used for distances of few kilometers and spends most of its time in a parking lot.

Embarking on a massive policy of equipping electric vehicles risks leading to ignoring the car model, which causes problems (urban sprawl, traffic jams, accidents, etc.) that are much broader than just the energy issue.

Financial accessibility

Last aspect of the question: its financial availability. Is the electric car really reserved for the rich, as we often hear? First observation, the lawsuit is a little unfair because it is the car itself that is essentially reserved for them: its current use is actually already very unequal.

But above all, Ademe shows that the full price of an electric car is equivalent to or even lower than that of a thermal vehicle. The reason is simple: the energy to make it roll is cheaper: “The cost of electricity to produce 300 km is currently around 10 euros in normal charging (at home) […] towards 30 approximately euro in thermal state”, notes the public agency.

If the electric car is cheaper over its entire life cycle, the initial investment that must be assumed is still too high for many low-income households.

But again, it all depends on the size of the car. An electric with a larger battery is more expensive to acquire. This additional initial investment cost is not offset by the less costly energy, especially since “The electricity consumption can vary in the ratio of 1 to 2.5 depending on the size and weight of the model »says the study.

If the electric car is cheaper over its entire life cycle, the initial investment that must be assumed is still too high for many low-income households. Emmanuel Macron has certainly just announced the passage of the ecological bonus from 6,000 to 7,000 euros for the purchase of battery-powered cars for half of the poorest households. But the gesture is still largely insufficient for many poor households given the cost of these new vehicles.

As such, “The development of the second-hand market is a major problem in the application of electric vehicles to facilitate their acquisition by as many people as possible”, formulates Ademe. For example, the organization recommends devices to objectively characterize the state of the battery, which is central to the value of the vehicle, or even to create financing offers dedicated to the second-hand market.

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