Are Electric Cars Really Clean?

Despite its strong emergence in the car market, the electric car continues to be an object of distrust for the general public because it raises many questions with conflicting opinions.

The impact of carbon

The carbon footprint of a product is calculated by counting GHG emissions throughout the life of the product, from the extraction of raw materials to the end of its useful life. Thus, for the carbon footprint of a car, it is necessary to take into account not only GHG emissions during the use of the vehicle, but also GHG emissions upstream (battery manufacturing, production of electricity to supply the car, etc.) and downstream (treatment of vehicles at the end of their useful life, recycling of batteries, etc.)
The production of an electric car emits more GHG (CO2) than its thermal equivalent, has been proven, mainly by the manufacture of batteries. It would be a problem for the climate if this excess CO2 were not offset by reductions in emissions in use. That is the case. During its useful life in France, an electric car emits 3 to 4 times less CO2 worldwide than its thermal equivalent. You have to drive about 40,000 km (i.e. 2 to 3 years of use for an average use) for the electric car to be better for the weather. However, a car will travel 200,000 km over its lifetime (battery life is not an obstacle): any electric vehicle put into circulation today instead of a smooth hybrid can reduce emissions indisputably. The only obstacle could be the second vehicle of households that circulate little, less than 3,000 km per year. But in practice, the low cost per kilometer of electric cars is a strong incentive to use them, even for second-hand vehicles.

The climatic benefits of electric vehicles compared to thermal vehicles come from their low energy consumption (despite the more emissive manufacture of electric vehicles). The less carbon-intensive the electricity production, the bigger the gap. Even when charged from a coal-dominated electric mix, such as in Australia, China, or Poland, the emissions of electric cars today are lower than those of thermal cars throughout their life cycle. Thus, electric cars are already better for the climate than thermal cars in most countries of the world. In just twenty countries, the electric car is less virtuous than the thermal car (assuming the electric mix doesn’t change). These are India, certain countries in Africa and the Middle East, and island countries such as Cuba, Haiti and Indonesia. This is also the case with the Reunion.

The mass of a vehicle is important. Who says a heavy electric vehicle says more material and a bigger battery to cover its energy needs. And therefore more emissions related to manufacturing and use due to this increase in mass. As such, replicating the thermal SUV model in the electric field is the perfect example of a false good idea. We need to think about cars that consume less energy and therefore make them lighter. However, the current trend is towards larger and heavier vehicles, which consume more: in 30 years, the average mass of vehicles has increased by 30% in France. Which is stupid considering the weather.

Could the plug-in hybrid vehicle be the ideal compromise?

  • Convenient way for manufacturers to meet their regulatory obligations (in Europe), thanks to emissions certification that greatly benefits the plug-in hybrid vehicle, in terms of actual emissions,
  • Reassuring technology for motorcyclists who are certainly concerned about environmental issues, but are not yet ready to take the 100% electric step.

However, this technology suffers from real flaws that make it difficult to reconcile with the ambition to decarbonize individual mobility almost completely in 20 years:

  • The electric mode is little used (less than 40% of the kilometers), due to the heat engine,
  • Its heat engine is less efficient than that of comparable vehicles …
  • The presence of two engines, plus the battery, significantly increases the mass of this vehicle and, therefore, its consumption (thermal or electric).

Thus, the plug-in hybrid vehicle only allows a carbon gain of 15-20% (compared to 60-70% of an electric vehicle). The plug-in hybrid vehicle is the typical example of economic irrationality: the choice of motorcyclists is most often dictated by the most restrictive use case instead of the most frequent use case (e.g. the year of more than 500 km , while 90% of the time is spent traveling tens of kilometers with a maximum of 1 to 2 people on board). The plug-in hybrid vehicle corresponds to this irrationality, based on a seemingly good idea of ​​combining the “best of both technologies” to cover use. In fact, this solution seems suboptimal from an economic point of view (more expensive vehicle and more complex to maintain) and from an environmental point of view.

Environmental impacts (excluding carbon)

“Rare lands” are not so rare. These are in fact metals as abundant as nickel or copper, but much more scattered in the earth’s crust, hence their name. Due to their properties, they are used in the manufacture of high-tech products. Today, there are no rare earths in most batteries installed in electric cars, and some electric motors may contain rare earths, but there are alternatives. However, there is a problem with raw materials because batteries use high-critical metals, the supply of which is problematic. We can cite cobalt and lithium, but also less critical metals, which could become so given the expected production trajectories, such as nickel, graphite or copper. If no risk of resource shortages for 2030 is identified, strong growth in demand could induce supply risks and market imbalances. The expected tension on raw materials for battery production should encourage the development of recycling as a supply or new battery chemicals to reduce the use of these metals (sodium batteries for example).

Recycling battery materials is crucial to reducing the pressure on demand and thus limiting the impacts of their extraction. Contrary to popular belief, Li-ion batteries are recyclable, currently up to 50% by pyrometallurgy (in bulk), and potentially up to 80-90% with new metallurgical processes. However, recyclable does not mean recycled, and currently less than 5% of lithium ion batteries are. As electric vehicles are emerging in the market, the industrial recycling sector is not yet mature. This should be developed as these electric vehicles leave the fleet in circulation and as the tension of the raw materials increases. The available deposit will then allow the sector to achieve real economies of scale and seek to make recycled materials as competitive as raw materials. Therefore, the European Commission proposes targets for the content of recycled materials in batteries placed on the EU market: from 2030, they must contain at least 12% cobalt, 85% lead, a 4% lithium and 4% recycled nickel, and these proportions will increase to 20% cobalt, 10% lithium and 12% recycled nickel from 2035. But recycling, even if done from optimally, it will not be enough to cover the demand. Any increase in battery production will require additional extraction activity, which should be limited to ensure proper needs with the best processes available. It is still essential to slow down the race to increase the size of the battery!

In addition to climate impact (GHG) and air quality (pollutants), it is important to consider other social and environmental impacts of the electric vehicle. Batteries and motors in electric vehicles, like all complex electronic products, contain a large number of materials whose extraction and refining are not without impact. The debate often focuses on the lithium and cobalt needed for battery production. These issues are real: the impact on the water resources of the Andean “wages” (where lithium is mined) or the working conditions in the cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. However, these two metals account for 4% of the average weight of a battery. Copper (9%), graphite (9%), steel (9%) and aluminum (29%) are used in much larger quantities, and sometimes with equal environmental and social issues. important, albeit with less diffusion. There are many risks and controversies (waste, water pollution, air pollution, working conditions, etc.) (1). Sobriety and recycling are key elements in answering these questions. And not to give a caricature image, these specific problems with minerals for batteries (of electric vehicles like many of our electronic devices) must be compared with the controversies related to the oil industry. Oil spills and human rights violations, the armed conflicts that punctuate the history of oil, are the sad reminder that thermal vehicles also depend on problematic extractive activity.

In short, the debate is more often focused on climate impacts compared to electric and thermal vehicles. Therefore, we are essentially talking about CO2 emissions, increasingly in a life-cycle approach. We are talking much less about a great virtue of electric motors: the total absence of pollutant emissions (nitrogen oxides and fine particles). However, according to Santé Publique France, air pollution in our country causes 40,000 deaths a year (ie 9% of mortality in France) and a loss of life expectancy at 30 years which can exceed 2 years. As transport is one of the main contributors, the gradual replacement of internal combustion vehicles by electrified vehicles (cars, buses) for journeys that cannot be done on foot or by bicycle is an excellent solution. Fine particles from the tires and brakes remain. Because electric vehicles are generally heavier, the abrasion of the tires at ground level is generally higher. On the other hand, thanks to the energy recovery devices installed in these vehicles, the pads and brake discs are less tense: fewer particles are emitted when braking. This translates into a comparable level of fine particulate emissions. Therefore, an electric vehicle is significantly better than a thermal vehicle for air quality.

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