Season 8 -  The electric car
Episode 3 -  Can the electric car revolution be green too?

There’s no getting around it: ecological awareness, international political will (which has come too late, but it’s better than nothing) and the possibility of largely decarbonising electricity has made the electric car the personal vehicle of tomorrow. At least, for the countries of the Global North - i.e. the rich inhabitants of Earth who can start a global and individual transition to go green. That’s not to say that all French people have the means to replace their old internal combustion engine. But compared to Brazilians, Nepalese or Burundians, it’s much easier. Especially since governments in the richest countries are able to support, and sometimes already support, this change in the automotive paradigm. Why this consideration? For the simple reason that for the electric car to be a true green revolution, it must be global.

To be clear, with the exception of a few dissenting, doubtful voices, the electric car is always ecologically preferable to a thermal car. First, because they emit fewer greenhouse gases. Then, because the critical raw materials used in electric batteries – such as lithium (check out this past edition to find out more on that) are often exploited to the detriment of the planet and local populations. Just like fossil hydrocarbons. Except that, according to Bernard Jullien, automobile specialist and economics lecturer at the University of Bordeaux, the more electric car models evolve, “the less they’re greedy for critical raw materials”. With a little time and a few technological leaps, we reckon things will continue to evolve in this direction.

But that’s not all. In reality, as Gérard Feldzer, president of Aviation Sans Frontières explained, it’s much easier to install electricity production capacities in a remote region, than to transport gasoline there. Once again, for the fleets of all countries to change, we must offer the poorest inhabitants a good reason to change vehicles. However, between almost free electricity from a solar park next to the village, and overpriced oil from the other side of the world, the choice is easy. For a French person as much as it is for someone from Brazil, Nepal or Burundi. “I don’t see thermal automobiles surviving in certain countries for obvious reasons related to supply - especially, obviously, in those which do not themselves have hydrocarbons. While with carbon-free electricity production, photovoltaic or other, they could be more energetically and geopolitically autonomous,” says Jullien. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine that countries like India or China – with respectively more than 326 and 415 million motor vehicles in circulation – continue to count on resources that will soon run out.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the electric car could be an opportunity to shift the power balance. It could put an end to the status quo of domination and plundering of resources in the least developed countries, by the most developed. “We had the audacity to require manufacturers to go electric to reduce greenhouse gas emissions due to climate change. We should also have the audacity to tell them that we no longer want child labor, any more than the economic supervision of countries with resources, or the use of materials extracted under unacceptable conditions. We must take advantage of this opportunity to create new ways of doing things,” says Jullien. He adds: “We can no longer see this as something between private operators. National and international planning is needed to introduce democracy and fundamental rights into the ecological transition, in the automobile sector, just as in others.”

This logic could also apply to the recycling of thermal vehicles, which is urgently needed, as well as for lithium batteries. “We have fairly structured channels in Europe and the United States for vehicles at the end of life. Less so in India or China, but there are think tanks on the subject within the United Nations. On the other hand, everyone has to keep in mind that we will only be able to satisfy our needs for lithium or cobalt batteries if we learn to recycle them. This is vital and, coupled with past experience with thermal energy, should bring the electric car fully into the circular economy,” says Jullien. In addition to being ecological, the electric car revolution could also be social and geopolitical. For once, we have to admit that the promise of this season's technology is attractive.

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