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To be or not to be electric?...the modern Hamlet doubt of global mobility on four wheels.

On the 14th February 2023, the European Parliament has definitively given the green light to the agreement on the cut of CO2 emissions both for cars and light commercial vehicles, according to the Fit for 55% package, a set or proposals aimed at putting EU legislation and initiatives in line with climate objectives fixed by the Council and the Parliament. This EU regulation has a direct consequence rather significant: stopping the sale of petrol or diesel-fuelled thermal motor vehicles from 2035 onwards throughout Europe. At the same time the Commission kicked off the revising process in terms of CO2-emission limit regulation for buses and trucks pushing 'zero-emission' for passenger urban fleets by 2030 and a 90% reduction in emissions for other heavy vehicles by 2040.

Photo >> Sport car plunged in Nature © MonacoEcoArt

On the 28th March 2023, the Council of the European Union made up of EU energy Ministers gave the final ok to the package of measures, not without some scepticism on the concrete feasibility of such measures. Italy, Romania and Bulgaria abstained while Poland voted against. In the follow-up, the European Commission will pursue two priorities: 1. building up a solid and safe homologation process for all vehicles powered by e-fuels and 2. drafting a delegated act where to specify the level of contribution of e-fuels to CO2 emission reduction.

As a consequence of this approach, choosing an electric car will be more convenient for consumers and it will stimulate the second-hand market compared to the new production of thermal cars. Part of the public opinion felt excited, considering it the driver to further encourage the marketing of cars with reduced environmental impact, with particular reference to electric engines.

Photo >> Urban charging stations for electric cars © MonacoEcoArt

However, the initiatives of the European Institutions have aroused severe criticisms from other key players in the EU economy like automotive sector. Luca De Meo, the new president of ACEA (European Automobile Manufacturers' Association), has openly spoken of the disastrous consequences that such a decision can cause in terms of employment rate and economic performances throughout the Union, in view of the leading role played by the European thermal-car automotive sector worldwide. Those comments raised issues of primary importance related to the very concept of 'sustainable development' including the social and economic aspects as well.

While we care about the environmental cause, being aware of the urgency of the climate change challenge, we wonder whether these measures are really feasible in a relatively short time and what the consequences will be for the technological progress of human beings, something that sustainability does not want to erase. In order to deepen the topic it is necessary to know further details in matter of mobility to low CO2 emissions.

Photo >> Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions per Sector by © Our World in Data

According to recent statistics (Source: Our World in Data) the transport on road has decidedly an impact on the environment, facilitating the production of greenhouse gases for more than 10% of the total sectors taken into account during a year. But the question is: Drastically abandoning the thermal engine for the electric is the only possible solution? To consider an electric engine a more energy efficient than a thermal one we need to consider the environmental footprint (impact & emissions) for all stages, including the initial raw materials, the production chain and the disposal phase, besides the vehicle in-use performance. All this data is part of the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) that allows us to compare data basing on common characteristics, notably similar automotive technology and the same route in kilometres.

Photo >> Combustion smoke © MonacoEcoArt

In doing this we must make some considerations, enhanced in specific research carried out in the last ten years.

➡ As for the driving time (one of the most critical), electric cars, or hybrids in electric mode, do not produce emissions on the road but they can produce them at the energy plant where the power comes from, whereas almost all vehicles have an impact.

➡ As for benefits in terms of climate emissions, the e-performance of electric cars is significantly higher than a traditional fuel or diesel car when considering the average life of a vehicle (200 thousand km) or more, but the benefits are reduced up to zero if the life cycle is lower (Source: Troy R. Hawkins et al. 2012).

➡ As for the type of energy, the origin of electricity, from renewables or fossil sources, makes the difference in terms of reducing emissions and that largely depends on the energy mix decided at governmental level by each country, thus determining a result that can vary greatly.

As for the environmental pollution, it consists of various elements, traditionally included in the LCA [e.g.: photochemical ozone creation potential (POCP), aquatic toxicity potential (ATP), terrestrial toxicity potential (TTP), acidification potential (AP), etc.] whose results fluctuate in part in favour of electric cars in part in favour of combustion cars.

➡ As for the battery performance, its effectiveness derives from its average life-cycle duration and how many kilometres it allows you to travel at each recharge.

Photo >> Electric cars in recharging mode © MonacoEcoArt

Before saying naively: "electric motors are better than heat engines", we need to make a series of detailed studies involving the whole 'cradle to grave' process, analysing all points of view and comparing data and information from authoritative sources.

The technological evolution can increasingly promote new forms of transport less impactful on the environment, without preventing human beings from progressing in their knowledge.

On the automotive industry front, manufacturers of environmentally friendly vehicles and batteries need to be more transparent in conveying information on real environmental performance and recyclability of their products, as reaffirmed by a specific research study under the umbrella of the European Parliament Directorate-General for Internal Policies within the Policy Department for Structural and Cohesion Policies – Transport and Tourism (2018), entitled: ‘Research for TRAN Committee - Battery-powered electric vehicles: market development and lifecycle emissions’. ***


By Maurice Abbati

Springer International Publishing

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