The electric car is good for the climate, but not without sobriety policies

Victim of sabotage. In early March, a Tesla factory – the only one in Europe – located near Berlin, Germany, was shut down due to an arson caused by a far-left group, which later claimed responsibility for action publicly. “This is a worrying trend. We do not see, for example, attacks against factories that manufacture thermal vehicles”, reacts Cédric Philibert. After wind turbines, the energy expert this time takes up his pen to defend electric cars in a book to be published this Thursday, March 21 with the deliberately provocative title “Why the electric car is good for the climate” (1).

Most of the criticism leveled at them is unfounded. They come from those who do not want to change or have no interest in things changing, notably the oil companies, but also from some ecologists who only advocate degrowth.” explains the specialist during a presentation of his book to the press. In Grünheide, near Berlin, activists accuse the Tesla factory of “polluting the water table and (de) consuming enormous quantities of an already scarce drinking water resource for its products”. They set up camp in a state-owned forest that Tesla wants to buy and clear for its expansion.

A perfect solution?

This example illustrates the extent to which electric vehicles are far from achieving consensus. If they are indeed virtuous from a climatic point of view because they do not emit CO2 during use, they also pose a whole host of problems including the artificialization of land to build gigafactories. But it is above all their manufacturing which is most often singled out because it requires many more materials than thermal vehicles. For Cédric Philibert, this is a “transitional affair“. Because, once extracted, “these metals will be used and reused many times” according to him.

Cover of a special issue of Charlie Hebdo, published on June 1, 2022, dedicated to electric cars.

“In a world that achieves some population stability and some saturation of material consumption, recycling will become the main source of metal supply and mining will fall to a lower level,” he explains, while recognizing that “This new age of metals presents, in the short and medium term, a certain number of challenges.” “We must accelerate their production by better preserving the environment, refusing inhumane social conditions and regaining sovereignty, in particular with regard to China.”

Other challenges that must also be overcome: decarbonizing the electricity mix in all countries, making these vehicles financially accessible or even increasing their autonomy. “We have an unfortunate tendency to focus on the flaws of the electric car in the hope and expectation of a perfect solution. It is not a question here of saying that it (the electric car) is the solution to all environmental problems, but simply that it represents a considerable technological breakthrough.“, summarizes the specialist in environmental geopolitics François Gemenne in the preface to the book.

What place for sobriety?

Cédric Philibert's desire is therefore to restore the image of electric vehicles and to respond to preconceived ideas and fake news circulating about them. But a very reassuring speech on electric cars can nevertheless present certain risks, according to Aurélien Bigo, researcher on the energy transition of transport. “We must not minimize the role of sobriety, which will also be essential to achieve climate objectives. Beyond electrification, many other developments are necessary, such as the development of active and collective modes of transport, carpooling, the transition to lighter vehicles, the regulation of advertising around SUVs…”, he explains.

Aurélien Bigo thus calls for electrification and sobriety to be carried out simultaneously, neither of these two levers being sufficient on its own. “The electrification of cars has positive impacts from a climate point of view, on air pollution and even noise pollution. But even electric, the car retains significant negative externalities, he argues. In addition to its demand for materials and its cost, there is the consumption of space and sharing with other modes of transport, the problems of accidents, sedentary lifestyle, etc. Sobriety can counterbalance some of these impacts and help to be more successful. electrification by reducing needs”.

“Yes of course sobriety is useful, retorts Cédric Phillibert. I'm for it obviously. But who can believe for a second that we are going to reduce the use of cars, the kilometers traveled, … in proportions which would make it possible to approach, even quite far, the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions which we need in three decades? We can't force people to do without the car! We must therefore defend electricity”, he insists.

The first barometer on sobriety published by Ademe in mid-March shows that the French are indeed very attached to their car and are reluctant to do without it completely. However, 45% of them say they travel by car because they have no other choice…

(1) “Why the electric car is good for the climate”, by Cédric Philibert, editions Les petits matins, 203 pages, March 21, 2024

Cédric Philibert's comments were collected during a presentation of his book at the Association of Environmental Journalists (AJE) organized on March 13, 2024.

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