Yes, some electric cars pollute more than thermal ones, but it is not that simple

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A recent study broadcast by the New York Times casts doubt on the electric car. Electric trucks and SUVs are more polluting than small compact thermal cars. It is not that simple, we explain everything to you.

Rivian R1S
Rivian R1S

The electric car is seen by some as a clean car. This is not the case, since it pollutes indirectly, during its production phase, and during recharging, through the electrical network. On the other hand, it is true that it does not emit CO2 since it does not have exhaust pipes due to the absence of combustion of a fossil fuel (gasoline or diesel).

A few months ago we published an article entitled “Why some electric cars pollute more than a thermal saloon (but not in France)”. This followed an American study, which focused on contamination from the Hummer EV, the 100% electric pickup truck from the American manufacturer GMC. The conclusions of the study were that it polluted more than a small thermal car… but not in France, thanks to our electric power, which is mostly low carbon.

Big electric cars vs small gasoline cars

A new US study looks at the global warming potential of large electric cars compared to small thermal cars. is the famous Wall Street Journal who adheres to it, helped by open access data from carbon counter. This is a tool created by MIT that allows the CO2 emissions of a car to be calculated throughout its entire life cycle, according to various parameters. Among them, we find in particular country of manufacture or country of use. As we saw in our previous article, these two parameters are extremely important, as they lead to different results.

CO2 emissions per km traveled by electric (yellow) and gasoline (grey) cars. The bigger the bubble, the greater the weight. The further to the left the bubble is, the less CO2 the car emits.

Thus, according to the data, in the United States and as can be seen with the infographic of the American media, theThe largest electric cars emit as much CO2 over their lifetime as the least fuel-efficient thermal cars. This is, for example, the case of the Ford F-150 Lightning, which then emits as many greenhouse gases as a small Mitsubishi Mirage. The Riviant R1T does even worse, emitting as much CO2 over its lifetime as a Honda Civic.

Electric cars “cleaner” than thermal ones

But beware, there are three pitfalls to avoid here. The first, very simple, is that you have to compare what is comparable. So, a thermal car will emit much more CO2 than its electric version. The second is that it is necessary take into account the electrical network that supplied the production plant and that will supply the charging stations. Finally, the third is that we must take into account the evolution of the second point in time since Power grids will increasingly use low-carbon energy.

To give a specific example, the thermal Ford F-150 (V6 2.7L Ecoboost) emits around 300g of CO2/km without taking into account the emissions linked to its production. The Lightning electric version emits approx. 130 g CO2/km in the US without taking into account the production of their batteries, but only… 20g of CO2 if recharged in France !

Ford F-150 Lightning

Of course, we must add the greenhouse gas emissions that were released during the production phase of the car and in particular its battery. But even in this case, as we saw earlier, the electric car is much less polluting than its thermal counterpart.

In the United States, the electric version of a car emits over its life cycle (production, use, and recycling) approximately twice as much greenhouse gases as its thermal version. In France, it can be six times moredepending on the model and place of manufacture.

The SUV problem

However, this new study reveals a real problem: that of the format of the cars, whether they are electric or not. It is clear that an SUV will consume more than an equivalent equivalent sedan. We see it with the Tesla Model Y Propulsion with an announced range of 455 km compared to 510 km for the Tesla Model 3 Propulsion with the same battery and 150 kg less on the scale. This actually results in higher consumption.

mercedes benz eqs
mercedes benz eqs

The question that arises is, therefore, not knowing if it is better to switch to an electric car or stay with a combustion engine. The answer to this question is very simple, as we have just seen previously, since the electric car will have a much smaller impact on global warming than the thermal car.

On the other hand, the question is whether we really need so many heavy, big and tall cars, that is, SUVs. Recently, the International Energy Agency sounded the alarm. The share of SUVs in new car sales increased from 8.5% worldwide in 2010 to 31.4% in 2022. Worse still, within electric cars, this share reached 51% in 2022 against the 37% in 2020.

Weight penalty… or consumption?

A weight penalty is already in effect in some countries, such as France. But isn’t this ultimately a false good idea? More than weight, the most important element of a car is its efficiency, that is, its fuel consumption. The less energy you consume, the less harmful it will be to the planet.

In addition to banning the sale of thermal cars, Shouldn’t we impose a bonus malus linked to consumption? ? Since it is possible in practice to have heavy cars that consume less than light cars. This is demonstrated by Mercedes with its EQS sedan and its 2.5 tons given for a theoretical consumption of 14 kWh/100 km (without taking into account the losses during recharging). To compare, we can take the Tesla Model Y Grande Autonomie and its 2 tons which announces a similar theoretical consumption despite 500 kg less on the scale.

And that’s normal, because weight has a fairly low impact on car consumption at high speeds In the city, consumption will be more affected by being overweight. But outside of built-up areas, it’s the car’s aerodynamics, and therefore its shape, that have a greater impact than weight on fuel consumption.

The electric car won’t save the planet, but it will help

In summary, yes, a (very) large electric car can in some cases emit more greenhouse gases than a small thermal car. But only in certain countries, and not in the long term, since carbon energies (coal, gas, fuel oil, etc.) should give way to low carbon energies (nuclear and renewable energies).

This is also the whole spirit of the third part of Elon Musk’s Master Plan. This plans to switch the entire world car park to electric cars, in order to halve the amount of energy needed for light transport, as summarized in the media. numeral.

However, let’s not forget that the electric car always emits fine particles during the driving phases, in particular because of the tires. Public transport and soft mobility, such as bicycles (electric or not), scooters and walking are usually a better alternative.

Our colleagues from Numerama launch Watt Else, their newsletter dedicated to the mobility of the future. Sign up here to make sure you get the first issue!

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