End of the thermal car: why everything electric is not a miraculous solution

End of the thermal car: why everything electric is not a miraculous solution

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If the electric car is useful for the energy transition, it is not without flaws and should not make us forget the need for sobriety in transport.

On June 8, 2022, the European Parliament voted to ban the sale of new thermal cars in 2035 on its territory. This measure is part of the European objectives for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions with deadlines of -55% in 2030 and carbon neutrality in 2050.

With this decision, European policies are promoting the electric vehicle (EV) as the solution to reduce GHG emissions in the transport sector. Today, the sale of electric vehicles is increasing almost exponentially and represents almost 10% of passenger car sales in Europe. This deadline of 2035 therefore seems in line with the current evolution of the automotive market and the climate emergency.

This forced march, however, leaves an impression of inevitability and, ultimately, an all too obvious solution to such complex planetary problems. It is necessary to be aware of the environmental consequences, but also of the economic and social issues.

Pollution from cars, beyond the exhaust pipe

From an environmental point of view, many studies have analyzed the comparison between the GHG emissions of the thermal car and those of its electric equivalent. Emissions during the use phase of the electric car depend directly on the emission level of the electric mix used to recharge the vehicles.

In the case of France, electricity production is low carbon because it is highly nuclearized, which is not the case in all European countries. The construction of the EV and especially its battery is very GHG emitting, the environmental benefits only appear if the car runs long enough. This does not help the spread of sobriety messages, but it is an important lever for climate mitigation.

By selecting only the emissions released in the territory, carbon accounting methods are not suitable for solutions that induce pollution outside the national territory. With these accounting options, the EV seems to be very effective in reducing the national carbon footprint… The desire to adopt it in France is therefore understandable, but its virtue does not apply on a planetary scale.

In addition to climate problems, the ban on the sale of thermal vehicles in 2035 must respond to the problem of air quality present in most major cities in the world with local economic and public health impacts.

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Since the transport sector is a major source of this pollution, the EV represents an alternative way to reduce these emissions, a reduction that remains modest, however, because particulate matter linked to abrasion from tires, brakes and road are still strong.

By imposing Low Emission Zones, many European cities force owners of polluting vehicles to buy a newer car that emits less local pollutants, potentially an electric vehicle.

Loss of oil taxes and help for electric vehicles

The electric revolution of the automobile fleet by 2035 will shake the entire economic system around the road. With the reduction in the consumption of fossil fuels, the collection of the Tax on Internal Consumption of Energy Products (TICPE) will decrease.

However, this tax, which generated 33.3 billion euros in 2019, is central to the budget of the State and local entities. Replacing the TICPE with an electricity tax could offset some of the fiscal losses, but it would affect all households, including those that travel less by car.

The subsidy system put in place (bonus and conversion premium), which has greatly contributed to the current level of electrification, will cost more and more. In 2020 it represented 700 million euros for a market share of 20%, including hybrid vehicles. By comparison, the 2018 “Cycling and Active Mobility” plan provides for €350 million over seven years for cycling facilities.

Tax advantages and subsidies for the purchase of an electric vehicle now benefit more urban areas, which adopt this technology more quickly, due to favorable conditions. However, rural and peri-urban areas pose a great challenge in this race for electrification, since their inhabitants have no choice but to use the car.

Markets in tension and very uncertain costs

Therefore, the State will be strongly called upon to support companies and individuals in this transformation, it remains to be seen what political option will be taken to redistribute this cost among taxpayers. Despite the installation of new electrical generators, the increase in demand will greatly inflate the electricity bill of the French, especially if the residential sector also goes the route of electricity for heating.

On a global scale, such as black gold, white gold, lithium and a large part of the metals have become strategic resources to support electric mobility. However, the strong demand and the geographical imbalance of deposits and exploitation are generating tensions that will weaken the supply and prices of raw materials.

Piles of salts containing lithium, in the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. Tomab/FlickrCC BY-NC-ND

Therefore, the electrification of Europe will depend on imports of these raw materials, which leaves doubts about the ability to supply the entire European and world market with electric vehicles at a reasonable price.

A climatic bandage, far from the ecological remedy

The electrification of the automobile fleet is a hasty race, based on an innovation that does not question the functioning of our society. If the EV is part of the carbon neutrality strategy for 2050, it will not be enough and will continue to maintain an unstable system dependent on a strong artificialization of the land and the consumption of abundant resources and energy.

The climate emergency, with ambitious goals for 2030 and 2050, makes short-term solutions solvent, such as electric vehicles, which will no longer be viable in 2100, in particular due to the lack of natural resources beyond 2050. benefits, the electric vehicle it stifles potential actions to change our car-based system. Promoting sobriety remains the safest and most natural solution with multiple environmental and social benefits.

However, the mobility system, spatial planning and lifestyles are trapped in a decades-long inertia focused on speed and consumption. Despite the urgency of putting an end to this model of ecocide, reflections on the future of automobile territories, between urban centers and rural areas, continue to be slow.

The end of the thermal car in 2035 should not be synonymous with a systematic substitution for an electric car, but rather a profound questioning of its place in our imagination and in our daily lives.


Alexis Poulhès is a professor at the École des Ponts, a research engineer at the City Mobility Transport Laboratory, École des Ponts ParisTech (ENPC); Cyrille François is an engineer in environmental engineering and doctor in urban planning, Université Gustave Eiffel. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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