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Opinion | Electric cars: Europe risks missing the climate challenge

The European Union has made strong commitments to ban thermal cars by 2035. But promoting electric vehicles requires stricter regulations on batteries, explain Rémi Bastien and Christophe de Charentenay.


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By Christophe de Charentenay (president of M@Air)

Published on May 10, 2023 at 10:36amUpdated on May 10, 2023 at 11:06am



Faced with the need to rapidly reduce carbon emissions, the electric car is now recognized as a solution: the best electric cars manage to reduce their carbon impact by 2.5 times compared to their thermal equivalents (assumption of 125,000 km life span). Europe has taken note of this by banning the production of thermal cars from 2035.


But within the range of electric cars, the carbon impacts on the life cycle in France range from less than 8 tons for small models with urban autonomy to more than 25 tons for SUVs equipped with very high capacity batteries. The share of this impact linked to the manufacture of batteries varies from 2 to 12 tons depending on the size and the manufacturing area.


To reduce this impact, a simple way is to manufacture the batteries in a country with low carbon electricity like Sweden or France. But how can a citizen make a climate-friendly choice? The European Commission has put the Joint European Research Centre (JRC) to work. The European regulation had already given in to the lobbies in the field of thermal cars by giving larger cars higher CO2 emission rights than smaller ones. The Citizens’ Climate Convention had identified this mechanism. The Commission seems set to repeat this mistake with the electric car: in March 2023, the JRC proposed two principles opposed to climate protection. The carbon impact of batteries is minimized by very questionable mechanisms: on the one hand, manufacturers can subscribe to low-carbon energy supply contracts, nice paper constructions without significant impact on the average emissions of a country. On the other hand, for industrialists who would invest directly in electricity production means, but who use the grid when wind or sun are lacking, they could count the CO2 at the average annual value of the country. This evaporates some of the CO₂ emissions from carbon accounting. It is no exaggeration to call this official fraud.


The second point is a repetition of the artifice used for thermal cars: instead of counting the net CO₂ footprint of the battery, it is divided by the energy it consumes: the more my big electric SUV consumes, the more the European Commission’s indicator improves. Of the 15 best-selling electric cars in Germany and France in 2022, 7 of the 8 European batteries were manufactured in Poland with the support of the European Investment Bank, which was congratulating itself in 2020 for having lent 480 million euros to the Polish site of LG. As a result, most of the European battery production was in 2022 in the worst possible place from a climate point of view. The policy of the European institutions will have resulted in favoring big cars and producing their batteries with as much CO₂ as possible.


An alternative could be to create a controlled designation of origin of the battery guaranteeing its low CO2 footprint: if a car has a battery with a CO₂ footprint of less than 3.5 tons, it has this « low CO2 AOC ». Cars with AOC get subsidies and others don’t: a large electric SUV with a battery made in Poland and an immediate carbon impact of 10 tons does not get any state support. The carbon footprint of the battery would then be calculated on a real basis: the share of electricity consumed on the grid would correspond to the carbon impact of the grid at the periods when the producer site calls for its consumption. The atmosphere would thus see the same thing as the calculation.


The European Commission must get its act together if it wants to remain credible with its « Fit for 55 » plan. To do this, it is essential to build a battery regulation that is honest and aligned with climate issues.


Rémi Bastien is former Director of Research and Innovation at Renault.

Christophe de Charentenay is President of M@Air.