Our world, tomorrow by Viviane Lalande / Scilabus

Are electric cars a truly sustainable solution?

Aurélien Bigo, Research Associate of the Energy and Prosperity Chair at Institut Louis Bachelier
On June 1st, 2022 |
6 min reading time
Aurélien Bigo
Aurélien Bigo
Research Associate of the Energy and Prosperity Chair at Institut Louis Bachelier
Key takeaways
  • Electric car sales increased significantly in 2020, accounting for 10% of sales over 2021. But they still only represent just over 1% of the current French car fleet.
  • In France, the target for the end of sales of combustion cars is currently set for 2040, while the EU should bring this target forward to 2035.
  • In France, the electric car allows greenhouse gas emissions to be divided by 3 in comparison with a combustion car.
  • Unlike combustion vehicles, electric vehicle emissions are zero when in use, and are instead concentrated on the production of the vehicle and the energy used to produce the electricity.
  • Moreover, the problems of congestion, accidents and noise pollution are also still present.

The car is the most wide­ly used mode of trans­port in France, account­ing for around two-thirds of all mobil­i­ty1, in terms of the num­ber of jour­neys, trans­port time and kilo­me­tres trav­elled. It is also a major source of green­house gas emis­sions, account­ing for just over half of domes­tic trans­port emis­sions (exclud­ing inter­na­tion­al trans­port), or 16% of emis­sions in France2. The auto­mo­bile is there­fore a key sec­tor in the fight against glob­al warming.

The elec­tric car is seen as a solu­tion for reduc­ing the envi­ron­men­tal impact of trans­port, being sup­port­ed by pub­lic author­i­ties, devel­oped by man­u­fac­tur­ers, and increas­ing­ly adopt­ed by users.

Even if elec­tric car sales have increased sig­nif­i­cant­ly since 2020, rep­re­sent­ing 10% of sales3 in 2021, they only rep­re­sent a lit­tle over 1% of the num­ber of cars cur­rent­ly on French roads. Nev­er­the­less, polit­i­cal deci­sions sup­port this growth, which is expect­ed to con­tin­ue. In France, the tar­get date for the end of sales of com­bus­tion engine cars is cur­rent­ly 2040, while the EU is expect­ed to bring this tar­get for­ward to 20354.

To judge whether this elec­tri­fi­ca­tion is good news and leads us towards sus­tain­able mobil­i­ty, we need to look at its advan­tages and dis­ad­van­tages on sev­er­al envi­ron­men­tal, social, and eco­nom­ic impacts of mobility.

Electrification is essential for climate objectives

Unlike inter­nal com­bus­tion vehi­cles, the emis­sions from elec­tric vehi­cles are zero when in use and are instead con­cen­trat­ed on the pro­duc­tion of the vehi­cle and the pow­er sup­ply. The pro­duc­tion of an elec­tric car bat­tery requires min­er­al resources. The extrac­tion of which has an unde­ni­able envi­ron­men­tal impact, and their refin­ing, like the pro­duc­tion of bat­ter­ies, also con­sumes ener­gy. In the pro­duc­tion phase of the vehi­cle, elec­tric cars emit more green­house gas­es (in addi­tion to oth­er envi­ron­men­tal impacts) than com­bus­tion cars, because of the addi­tion of the battery.

It is in the use of the vehi­cle that the cli­mate impact will be off­set, espe­cial­ly for coun­tries with a high­ly decar­bonised elec­tric­i­ty mix. In France, which is one of the coun­tries with the best record in this respect, the elec­tric car can already reduce green­house gas emis­sions by a fac­tor of 3 com­pared with a com­bus­tion engine car (depend­ing on the stud­ies, the start­ing hypothe­ses and the type of vehi­cle stud­ied, emis­sions are reduced by a fac­tor of 2 to 5).

Car­bon bal­ance in life cycle analy­sis in tCO2e of ther­mal, plug-in hybrid and elec­tric sedans in France, in 2016 and 2030 (FNH 20175). V2G: vehi­cle-to-grid is a tech­nol­o­gy that allows the redis­tri­b­u­tion of ener­gy stored in the bat­tery to the elec­tron­ic grid6.

While oth­er alter­na­tive to fos­sil fuels (hydro­gen, bio­gas, agro­fu­els, or syn­thet­ic fuels) are not as suit­able for light vehi­cles, elec­tric pow­er is a pre­ferred and even essen­tial solu­tion for achiev­ing our cli­mate objec­tives in trans­port. The IPCC report7 states in its sum­ma­ry for pol­i­cy mak­ers that “elec­tric vehi­cles pow­ered by low-car­bon elec­tric­i­ty offer the great­est poten­tial for decar­bon­i­sa­tion of land trans­port in life cycle analy­sis”8. How­ev­er, even a fac­tor of 3 on emis­sions is not enough and would need to be improved by mov­ing to much more fuel-effi­cient vehi­cles, as we shall see.

Putting air pollution gains into perspective

In addi­tion to cli­mate change, anoth­er impor­tant issue is air pol­lu­tion, which affects health. The con­se­quences for pub­lic health in France9 are main­ly due to emis­sions of fine par­ti­cles (PM), fol­lowed by nitro­gen oxides (NOx) and ozone (O3). Depend­ing on the pol­lu­tant, the trans­port sec­tor has a more or less sig­nif­i­cant impact10: more than 60% for NOx and 17.5% for PM2.5 (par­ti­cles with a diam­e­ter of less than 2.5 µm), although these pro­por­tions increase in the most dense­ly pop­u­lat­ed areas, par­tic­u­lar­ly along road­sides, where road trans­port accounts for more than half of the par­ti­cles11, where pop­u­la­tion expo­sure can be significant.

Until now, tailpipe emis­sions have been the main source of air pol­lu­tion from road trans­port. Sig­nif­i­cant progress has already been made on these issues for new vehi­cles, and elec­tric vehi­cles will com­plete­ly solve this prob­lem for both fine par­ti­cles and NOx.

On the oth­er hand, as a result of the progress made on fine par­ti­cles from exhaust, the share of non-exhaust par­ti­cles is becom­ing increas­ing­ly sig­nif­i­cant, rep­re­sent­ing 59% of PM10 and 45% of PM2.5 emis­sions12 in 2019 in France. These emis­sions cor­re­spond to the abra­sion of brakes, tyres, and the road sur­face, as well as the resus­pen­sion of fine par­ti­cles already present on the roads. Elec­tric vehi­cles reduce emis­sions of par­ti­cles from brakes through regen­er­a­tive brak­ing, but emis­sions are high­er for par­ti­cles from tyres and pave­ment because of their greater weight. Over­all, emis­sions are some­what low­er for elec­tric vehi­cles, espe­cial­ly giv­en that the dri­ving range, and there­fore the weight, of the vehi­cle is limited.

Fine par­ti­cle emis­sions from ther­mal and elec­tric cars (ADEME 202213)

Many impacts are too often forgotten

In terms of both green­house gas emis­sions and atmos­pher­ic pol­lu­tants, the elec­tric car there­fore appears to be a bet­ter choice than the inter­nal com­bus­tion engine. But the amounts are still insuf­fi­cient and should not over­shad­ow the fact that emis­sion lev­els are still high, par­tic­u­lar­ly when com­pared with oth­er modes of trans­port or forms of mobil­i­ty that are more eco­nom­i­cal and more envi­ron­men­tal­ly friend­ly. This is also the case for oth­er impacts or exter­nal­i­ties of trans­port, where the elec­tric car does not solve the prob­lems identified.

As with air pol­lu­tion, noise pol­lu­tion, an impor­tant fac­tor in the qual­i­ty of life, is reduced by elec­tric vehi­cles with­out dis­ap­pear­ing entire­ly. In fact, the noise of com­bus­tion engine vehi­cles comes not only from the engine, but also from tyre fric­tion and aero­dy­nam­ic noise, which is even more impor­tant at high­er speeds, and these types of nois­es will not be sig­nif­i­cant­ly altered by elec­tric cars.

Oth­er car-relat­ed issues remain unchanged with the switch to elec­tric cars. These include the space tak­en up by cars, which is often sum­marised as con­ges­tion, but which also con­cerns park­ing space (on roads, in build­ings and car parks) and, more broad­ly, trans­port infra­struc­ture, lead­ing to soil arti­fi­cial­i­sa­tion and impacts on bio­di­ver­si­ty. The prob­lems of acci­den­tol­ogy also remain unchanged with the switch to elec­tric vehi­cles. The car is also an inac­tive mode, and phys­i­cal inac­tiv­i­ty and seden­tari­ness are a major pub­lic health issue, although too often for­got­ten since they con­cern no less than 95% of the pop­u­la­tion14.

The prob­lem of unequal access to mobil­i­ty, for social or geo­graph­i­cal rea­sons, can be rein­forced or reduced by switch­ing to elec­tric vehi­cles, depend­ing on the cir­cum­stances. With a high­er pur­chase price, at least for the time being, the dis­tri­b­u­tion of the car to the most finan­cial­ly frag­ile pop­u­la­tions is com­pli­cat­ed, but the costs of use are then much low­er, for an over­all cost of own­er­ship that remains high in com­par­i­son with the use of pub­lic trans­port, car shar­ing or even more active mobil­i­ty, even if the lack of motori­sa­tion can some­times require the use of car sharing.

Final­ly, regard­ing the con­sump­tion of resources, and in par­tic­u­lar cer­tain met­als (lithi­um, cobalt, nick­el, cop­per, etc.), the elec­tric vehi­cle may lead to new ten­sions com­pared to the inter­nal com­bus­tion engine car, in terms of sup­ply dif­fi­cul­ties and price volatil­i­ty, the lim­i­ta­tion of cer­tain resources or pol­lu­tion linked to their exploitation.

Rethinking vehicles and mobility

Respond­ing to these dif­fer­ent issues togeth­er will there­fore require going beyond a sim­ple switch to elec­tric cars – assum­ing it is pos­si­ble to do so with­out major con­straints, espe­cial­ly as the world’s car fleet is expect­ed to grow in the com­ing decades.

The first step is to review the size of the cars or, more broad­ly, the vehi­cles used, which are not adapt­ed today to every­day use, i.e., to the vast major­i­ty of uses. A car gen­er­al­ly has five seats, can go up to 180 km/h, and weighs around 1.3 tonnes, where­as the most fre­quent uses are for one per­son, on roads lim­it­ed to 80 or 90 km/h max­i­mum (more rarely up to 130 km/h), for dis­tances of a few kilo­me­tres to a few dozen kilometres.

Here again, the risk is that the race for greater dri­ving range for elec­tric vehi­cles will con­tin­ue, when dri­ving ranges of sev­er­al hun­dred kilo­me­tres are only use­ful for a few rare jour­neys per year, at a finan­cial cost to the buy­er and with very sig­nif­i­cant envi­ron­men­tal impacts. In the future, there­fore, we need to devel­op much more fuel-effi­cient vehi­cles, i.e., small­er, lighter, less pow­er­ful, and less fast, more aero­dy­nam­ic, with a lim­it­ed dri­ving range… which is the oppo­site of cur­rent trends, marked by heavy elec­tric vehi­cles (such as SUVs) that do not meet any of the vir­tu­ous cri­te­ria men­tioned above.

More broad­ly, the aim is to devel­op inter­me­di­ate vehi­cles between the bicy­cle and the car, rang­ing from elec­tri­cal­ly assist­ed bicy­cles (EABs) to mini-cars (such as the Renault Twizy or Cit­roën Ami), as well as fold­ing bicy­cles, car­go bikes, speed-ped­elecs (elec­tric bicy­cles which can achieve speeds of up to 45km/h) and velo­mo­biles (recum­bent bicy­cles with a fair­ing). These vehi­cles extend the pos­si­bil­i­ties of the tra­di­tion­al bicy­cle to replace the car, while mak­ing elec­tric mobil­i­ty much more acces­si­ble and much less impact­ful in terms of green­house gas emis­sions, pol­lu­tants, and con­sump­tion of resources and space.

Inter­me­di­ate vehi­cles, adapt­ed from15.

More gen­er­al­ly, we also need to review the place and uses of the car in mobil­i­ty, by act­ing on the five levers of decar­bon­i­sa­tion of mobil­i­ty, cit­ed by the nation­al low-car­bon strat­e­gy16, name­ly mod­er­a­tion of trans­port demand, by get­ting clos­er to peo­ple on a dai­ly basis and reduc­ing the longest jour­neys; modal shift, by favour­ing walk­ing, cycling, trains, bus­es and coach­es as much as pos­si­ble (and in this order), well ahead of cars and planes, whose use must be reduced; by improv­ing vehi­cle occu­pan­cy, in par­tic­u­lar through car­pool­ing; ener­gy effi­cien­cy, which also con­cerns the reduc­tion of speed on the roads, in addi­tion to the levers of more envi­ron­men­tal­ly friend­ly and elec­tric vehi­cles already men­tioned; and final­ly the decar­bon­i­sa­tion of ener­gy, in par­tic­u­lar through elec­tri­fi­ca­tion for the light­est vehi­cles, and also hydro­gen, bio­gas, agro­fu­els, or syn­thet­ic fuels as a com­ple­ment or for the oth­er modes that are more dif­fi­cult to electrify

If tech­nol­o­gy, and in par­tic­u­lar this last lever, are major and indis­pens­able, they must be placed in their right­ful place in the tran­si­tion, as the last levers of decar­bon­i­sa­tion, after the pre­vi­ous levers which bet­ter enable the impacts of mobil­i­ty to be tack­led at the root and thus respond pos­i­tive­ly to more sus­tain­abil­i­ty issues. As far as the car is con­cerned, the elec­tric car must be encour­aged, because it is the best alter­na­tive to get rid of oil, but it can­not be seen as a mir­a­cle cure… because it is not.

8« Elec­tric vehi­cles pow­ered by low emis­sions elec­tric­i­ty offer the largest decar­bon­i­sa­tion poten­tial for land-based trans­port, on a life cycle basis (high con­fi­dence). »


Aurélien Bigo

Aurélien Bigo

Research Associate of the Energy and Prosperity Chair at Institut Louis Bachelier

Aurélien Bigo works on the energy transition in transport. In 2020, he defended his thesis at the Institut Polytechnique de Paris on the subject of "Transport facing the challenge of the energy transition. Explorations between past and future, technology and sobriety, acceleration and slowing down".

His work can be consulted on the following page of the Energy and Prosperity Chair, of which he is a research associate: http://www.chair-energy-prosperity.org/publications/travail-de-these-decarboner-transports-dici-2050/

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