fbpx Skip to main content

The electrification of vehicles is often presented as an essential lever to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the transport sector and combat climate change. But what are the real environmental benefits of electric cars? To what extent must this technological transition be accompanied by a broader evolution of our mobility? Aurélien Bigo, a French researcher specializing in the challenges of the energy transition in transport, sheds light on the topic.

Aurélien Bigo - Chercheur en transition environnementale des transports

Aurélien Bigo

Chercheur sur la transition énergétique des transports

To what extent is the electric vehicle a lever for the transition to a low-carbon society?

Massive electrification of vehicles is essential to achieve our climate goals, that is undeniable. Although there is a lot of information circulating about its impact, one thing is certain: an electric vehicle emits significantly less greenhouse gases than a conventional combustion vehicle, even taking into account more emissions during manufacturing.
This is because their advantage is realized during their use. In France, where electricity is mainly low-carbon, an electric vehicle emits around 15 times less than a comparable ICE vehicle per kilometre travelled. It is estimated that for an equivalent model, an electric vehicle emits between 2 and 5 times less greenhouse gases than a combustion vehicle in France. This trend is also observed in most countries, even those with a more carbon-intensive energy mix like Germany.
However, electrification is only part of the solution.

It must be part of a global evolution of our mobility, by developing vehicle sharing, promoting alternative modes of transport where possible, and promoting even more energy-efficient options. Electrification is essential, but it must be accompanied by other changes to fully achieve our environmental objectives.

How do you explain the significant differences between the various studies indicating that emissions from electric vehicles are 2 to 5 times lower than those from combustion vehicles in France?

These are indeed significant differences, which are linked to several factors, from the vehicle itself to its use.

To begin with, when considering the production stage, emissions related to the manufacture of the battery of electric vehicles have a significant impact that can vary considerably. This depends on the country of manufacture, its chemistry, but also the capacity of the battery – the larger it is, the higher the emissions related to its production will be. This is why it is preferable today, in the midst of the transition, to favour vehicles with a more “reasonable” battery size, whose range is not oversized in relation to the driver’s actual needs. On this side, the development of a dense network of charging infrastructures is an essential lever to enable us to make do with vehicles with “moderate” range.

Next, the size and weight of the electric vehicle play a determining role: a more compact and lighter model logically emitting less than a large electric vehicle, whether during the production or use phase.

Finally, the energy mix used to produce the electricity consumed greatly influences the carbon footprint, especially for countries that still have a highly carbon-intensive electricity mix. Low emissions per kWh, thanks to low-carbon sources, reduce the impact of the electric vehicle in use. Hence the need to ideally plan charging at a time when electricity is low-carbon.

The last key variable is the vehicle’s lifespan. Since an electric vehicle is more emissive during its manufacture but less so in use, the longer its lifespan, the greater its advantage over the ICE vehicle will be in the long term. For combustion vehicles, they will emit more the longer they are used, hence the need to reduce the fleet and renew it with electric and energy-efficient vehicles in order to achieve our climate goals.

To what extent do current government policies favor a transition to electric cars?

In general, there are quite ambitious policies in place to develop electric vehicles. We can cite in particular the end of new combustion vehicles in 2035 at the level of the European Union, but also a number of aids to support the installation of charging stations, the purchase of electric vehicles, or support for the transition of industry. If I were to summarize, I would say that the main players in the transition to electric are generally supported.

Among the key challenges will be making electric vehicles affordable for the majority, limiting constraints related to the supply of strategic metals, and accelerating the industrial transition of the sectors concerned.

Further support is still needed, especially at a time when dissenting voices are emerging. I am thinking in particular of the strong opposition to electric vehicles in the context of the European elections, where some parties wish to call into question the 2035 target. Yet, it is necessary to achieve our climate goals!

Beyond just promoting electric vehicles, it is essential that public policies encourage a reduction in the predominant place currently occupied by the individual car in our travel. In parallel, these policies must also encourage the design of more energy and resource-efficient models, with dimensions better suited to real mobility needs. A shift towards more compact, lightweight and efficient products must be supported.

What levers do you think would be relevant to accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles in a context of climate emergency?

In addition to the elements already mentioned such as charging infrastructures and fiscal incentives, many levers can be activated in parallel. To begin with, I would cite the use of fiscal incentives in favour of electrification, but also support for the development and use of different modes of transport, as well as support for industry to facilitate this transition.

In terms of usage, the large-scale deployment of charging infrastructures will help to remove certain barriers related to the range of electric vehicles.

Finally, a real communication challenge remains in order to bring about a lasting change in social norms, as the current political and media discourse on the place of the car is not aligned in the right direction.

In the long term, how can we ensure that the electric car is a viable option to achieve our climate goals?

For electric cars to truly become a viable long-term solution in the fight against climate change, several elements are essential. First of all, we must ensure that their production and use have a minimal environmental footprint. This is why we must favour, as mentioned above, compact, aerodynamic and energy-efficient electric models rather than large, energy-guzzling vehicles. This will also help limit their purchase cost, which is currently a barrier to their development. In addition, fiscal incentives such as purchase subsidies, conversion bonuses and social assistance should encourage this type of energy-efficient vehicle.

We could also rethink the “eco-scores” so that they are based on environmental criteria and the efficiency of vehicles. But beyond these measures, there needs to be a complete and lasting realignment of public policies to massively increase the share of electric vehicles, while promoting a more frugal and reasoned use of these vehicles.

For the all-electric vehicle to represent a true solution for the future, it will necessarily have to combine technical advances and increased efficiency.