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 goal, on Monday, October 17, by going to the Paris Motor Show. Bonus, tariff shield… The President of the Republic had also announced a number of measures in favor of electric cars the day before. According to the head of state, the goal is to “fulfill the goal for the climate, for the reindustrialization of the country and for our sovereignty”. From an environmental point of view, however, the electric car is not so virtuous. Franceinfo details why the only one “transition to electric” thermal car does not offer a sustainable solution to remove pollution from our journeys.

Because the electric car is not completely “clean”

As franceinfo has already explained, an electric car pollutes. When it leaves the factory, even before it has been driven, it has a larger environmental footprint than a thermal vehicle of a similar size, summarizes Bertrand-Olivier Ducreux, transport and mobility engineer at Environment and Energy Management (Ademe).

“This environmental footprint is much higher for the electric car, primarily because of its battery.”

Bertrand-Oivier Ducreux, transport and mobility engineer at Ademe

at france info

Cobalt, nickel, manganese, lithium… Batteries for electric cars require metals whose extraction is particularly polluting. The electric car therefore starts with a clear environmental delay on its thermal counterpart. This gap is only filled after 40,000 to 50,000 km of road, according to estimates from Ademe. This catch-up happens “provided you have a french electric mix”that is, with a large proportion of electricity with low greenhouse gas emissions, such as nuclear, specifies Bertrand-Olivier Ducreux.

But over its lifetime, an electric car driven in France has a carbon impact two to three times lower than an equivalent thermal model. But a new disadvantage must be emphasized: this estimate only applies to batteries of less than 60 kWh, equivalent to a Peugeot e208 or a Renault Mégane at most, with autonomy of around 400 km.

Because it is too greedy for rare raw materials

Let’s 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 kilos of metals, illustrated “Supplement of the study”, on France 2, in 2020.

These raw materials are found in limited quantities on our planet. Julien Pillot, economist, predicts “usage conflicts” because the same resources are needed for wind turbines and solar cells. In addition, 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 larger amount of copper than a thermal vehicle. For Marco Daturi, professor and researcher in 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 copper stock available on Earth.”

Marco Daturi, researcher at the catalysis and spectrochemistry laboratory at the University of Caen

at france info

That’s what it means according to him“it is impossible to exclusively replace the combustion engine fleet with electric cars” and that we can only do it in one “relatively low percentage”.

Because the ecological interest in electric only applies to light cars

“An electric vehicle’s carbon footprint increases almost proportionally to its weight, even heavily influenced by the battery’s storage capacity.“, writes Ademe in a message published on 10 October. The board encourages motorists to “choose a car with a battery that is just suitable for majority use” and choose “the smallest and lightest possible car model”.

Critics therefore logically emerged when Renault on Monday unveiled a tight-fitting SUV as a new electric model of the mythical 4L. “Making an electric SUV is nonsense”referee Marco Daturi.

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

Pierre Leflaive, Head of Transport at the Climate Action Network

at france info

Despite this novelty in the diamond brand contrary to Adem’s recommendations, Bertrand-Olivier Ducreux registers positive signals. “Until last year, the best-selling electric car in France was the Tesla Model 3, a very advanced car which is very expensive.”. According to him, “many people had an elitist preconception about the electric car”. This perception tends to change. During 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 these are generally non-SUV cars that cost less than 30,000 euros before government subsidies and weigh between 1,200 and 1,250 kilos empty. “These cars have found their market and show an industrial reality”comments the engineer.

Because the electric car is only virtuous over short distances

When listening to them, consider political leaders or managers of car manufacturers “transition to electric” such as replacing the thermomobile with the electric car. “We will soon have cars that will exceed 600 km of autonomy”said on Tuesday france info Carlos Tavares, CEO of Stellantis. And to add: “As long as consumers want to buy autonomy, that’s my mission [d’y] reply.”

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

“The simple replacement of thermal with electrical is not satisfactory.”

Bertrand-Olivier Ducreux

at france info

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 cannot stay in this model.”, believes Bertrand-Olivier Ducreux. He calls for one “breach of conduct” in relation to a period in which “we partially chose our vehicle for the few most restrictive trips of the year” : going on holiday hundreds of kilometers from home, with a lot of luggage, one or more children and sometimes bicycles on the roof.

For these long journeys, he sees the electric car as a link in the chain. Instead of taking the entire journey by car, it would be a matter of taking a bus or a car to reach a station, for example. From there, public transport may make it possible to take a mainline train. Once there, renting an electric car will allow you to go to your resort and drive within a radius of 40-50 km.

Because it is the car’s space (electric or not) that must be examined

The electric car is only one “clumsy among a wider and more diversified range of mobility services”, writes Ademe. This projection flies in the face of regional planning which has favored roads and cars, leaving the rail network to erode. Result: the personal car is one of the main daily modes of transport for 72% of the French, while half of the journeys are less than 5 km, reports Ademe.

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

Marco Daturi

at france info

Like Ademe, the chemistry researcher does not plead for a single solution, but for “solutions that will be inserted into the structure of the territory”. The project is as ambitious as it is delicate. “Challenge the entire car in society, invest massively in rail, long-distance but also short-distance, reduce the distances between home and work, reduce urban sprawl… It’s a path politically more difficult than betting everything on the electric car”analyzes Julien Pillot, economist, Inseec researcher, associated with CNRS.

>> INFOGRAPHIC. Transport: is spatial planning the driving force behind car use?

This profound change is nonetheless necessary, Pierre Leflaive believes. He remembers that 13 million people in France are in “mobility precarious situation”, that is, without access to an individual or collective form of transport, believes the Foundation for Nature and Man. For the head of transport for the Climate Action Network, reducing the car fleet does not mean reducing travel. According to him, it’s about giving more opportunities to people who need them. In this view “The railway will be the spearhead in the transformation of the transport sector, and this means massive investments”he notes.

“The challenge is not to move worse. On the contrary, it is to adapt better to our needs, and ultimately have better mobility for everyone.”

Pierre Leflaive

at france info

It is still necessary, admits Pierre Leflaive, to improve the quality of the alternatives: their punctuality, their regularity, their price, but also their comfort. According to the head of the SNCF, Jean-Pierre Farandou, an envelope of 100 billion euros over fifteen years is needed to double the share of the train journey. It will include investment in upgrading the aging network, development of the RER and new high-speed lines. Answer from Clément Beaune, Minister of Transport: “I would really like that if we release budget funds – and we will release some – then we prioritize them on this transport to work, most often everyday and on the network. The electrification of the car fleet and the revitalization of the train could derail the public accounts. The challenge for the state will be to keep the charge.

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