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Improving Vehicle Pollution Estimations

Improving Vehicle Pollution Estimations
 Victor Poirier
Former director of Publications

Victor Poirier, Policy Officer at Institut Montaigne, who steered the report What Role for Cars in Tomorrow’s World? comments the publication of the Commission’s “Clean Mobility Package”. Although this paper is a positive initiative, the calculation method does not take into account the greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) of in-use vehicles. 

Transport’s impact on the environment is a recurrent discussion topic, and rightly so: the sector accounts for over a quarter of total GHG emission in the European Union (EU). On the 8th of November, the Commission published the “Clean Mobility Package” to address this issue and accelerate the transition towards low-emission or zero-emission vehicles. What can we learn from this document? 

Having established precise goals for 2030, the EU is providing itself with the world’s most prospective regulation in the sector, giving out a positive signal which has been warmly welcomed by many NGOs. Yet, debates focus exclusively on aiming to reduce by 30% the average quantity of CO2 emitted by vehicles in comparison to the 2021 average, with an intermediate goal of 15% in 2025. While some have considered this objective as clearly insufficient, others have more pragmatically suggested that it is “better than nothing”. Regrettably, this debate has drawn all the attention and as a result, more important issues have been largely disregarded. 

The European Commission’s publication, which advocates neutral technology, de facto imposes  a greater part of electricity in manufactures’ production. Hybrid and electric vehicles represent a considerable move forward to limit CO2 and NOx (nitrogen oxide) emissions. 

Their presence on our roads is bound to increase, thanks to technological advances and recent decisions taken by public authorities. Their autonomy will grow, responding to civilians’ expectations and making this motorisation a serious and increasingly reasonable alternative. 

From well to wheel

The Commission itself agrees: all our efforts cannot merely be concentrated on electric energy as 80% of cars will still be equipped with combustion engines in 2030. Thus how can we meet environmental standards without solely relying on electricity? In accordance with Institut Montaigne’s recent report What Role for Cars in Tomorrow’s World, we call on European leaders to tackle two major issues which are often eclipsed: revising the scope of emissions taken into account for their calculation and reducing the weight of vehicles. 

Studying the scope of calculation would have been relevant to assess which criteria should be taken into account in order to estimate a vehicle’s pollution. The “tank-to-wheel” calculation method prevails today and it appears that the Commission wishes to maintain it until 2030, which is a shame, since it only takes into consideration GHG emissions directly caused by circulating cars. According to this methodology, electric vehicles emit neither CO2 nor particles. But what about the production of batteries and the electricity that fuels them? 

The global “well-to-wheel” approach, that we advocate in our report, allows to capture a vehicle’s global emissions, including the energy that is needed to fuel it. Due to very different energy mixes, emissions from a “standard” electric vehicle may vary from a 1 to 6 scale between France and Germany - for which 40% of the total electricity production still originates from coal. The increasing need for cobalt and lithium to produce ever more autonomous electric batteries also generates significant environmental impacts during their extraction. The idea is to take into account, in the long term, emissions throughout the whole lifecycle of a vehicle. 

The weight of vehicles

The weight of vehicles should not be… taken lightly! It has a direct influence on the vehicle’s environmental impact. If a vehicle’s weight is reduced by 100 kg, its GHG emission will be reduced by 6g per km on an average. But today, due to the European Commission’s calculation method, only a 2.4g of CO2/km reduction is recorded in the weighted average. By overlooking more than half (60%) of gains due to weight reduction in its CO2 emission calculations, the European Commission solely takes into account 40% of the efforts made by manufactures to reduce their vehicules’ weight. 

This method thus penalises a compelling means to reduce vehicles’ negative environmental impact, while the emergence of new, lighter and more resistant material reinforces the potential impact of this strategy. The same issue arises for electricity: serving the purpose of increasing electric vehicles’ autonomy - and thereby addressing users’ “range anxiety” - manufacturers produce vehicles with increasingly heavy batteries, and thus with worse environmental implications. Since its positive impacts are established - and significant -, why fail to adopt weight reduction as a key element of GHG emissions reduction in the car industry? 

By publishing this report, the European Commision was willing to inaugurate a long-term logic, favouring an incentive-based approach with manufacturers. Unfortunately, this time-oriented logic has overlooked the reassessment of several aspects of the status quo, failing to establish the Commission as a strong driver for clean and sustainable mobility.

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