Are electric cars the most ‘sustainable’ solution today?

The shift towards electric mobility is pivotal in crafting a sustainable future across environmental, economic, and social dimensions, argues Davide Chiaroni

The debate on the sustainability of the transition to electric mobility is very open and often gives rise to different visions and conflicting interpretations of the contribution of electric cars to decarbonisation. Three reasons, at least partly different from those usually leveraged by the advocates of the electric vehicle (EV) transition, are of particular importance to understand what the future of mobility holds. The three points relate to the so-called triple bottom line of sustainability: environmental, economic and social.

The first refers to the environmental aspect. According to the European Environment Agency, transport—and in particular road transport—is the main source of emissions in Europe. It accounted for around 28.2% of the total tonnes of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere in 2023, compared, for example, with 22% deriving from energy production. Transport emissions are the only emissions that have not decreased since 1990. Quite the opposite, they increased by almost 20%. It is therefore evident that a decisive turnaround is needed, if only to come closer to reaching the sustainability targets set for 2030. This can only be achieved through a drastic, if not total, reduction in emissions, at least from newly registered vehicles.

The number of electric cars on offer is growing rapidly

The second reason pertains to economic sustainability, especially from the perspective of vehicle manufacturers. In 2015, there were around 17 electric car models, including both plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) and battery electric vehicles (BEVs), available on the European market, associated with 13 car brands. By 2023, this number rose to 190, representing more than 60 brands. Behind this “explosion” lie investments in product platforms that can only be explained in light of a market horizon of more than a decade, on which manufacturers have clearly placed their bets. These market expectations are unlikely to be significantly reviewed to make way for other technologies, unless one considers the possibility of a period of heavy income losses. Not to mention the investment in infrastructure for electric charging networks, both urban and, even more, extra-urban, which has been sustained and designed with ‘mainstream’ market development scenarios in mind, enabling players to recoup the money spent to build such infrastructure.

The third point concerns social sustainability, in relation to the potential acceptance of alternatives to electric mobility in European cities. It is true that biofuels have an almost neutral impact on the system if we look at the overall emissions balance, as they emit during the use phase the CO2 that they previously absorbed during the growth phase. However, it is also true that, considering only the emissions from a car’s tailpipe, biofuel-powered vehicles are not substantially different from conventional cars. Are we sure that people are still willing to tolerate poor air quality, especially now that they have started to experience the benefits of electric mobility?

For the reasons outlined, the shift towards electric mobility, while gradual, is pivotal in crafting a sustainable future across environmental, economic, and social dimensions. Indeed, EVs are poised to assume a central role in the transportation landscape, driving significant positive change.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Automotive World Ltd.

Davide Chiaroni is Full Professor of Strategy & Marketing at Politecnico di Milano and co-founder of Energy & Strategy

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