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E-cars as climate saviours?

There is great hope in electric cars: to remain mobile without harming the environment or the health of others. But can the electric car deliver what it promises? Scepticism is growing. Here is an overview.

It has been clear for some time that combustion engines will soon be a thing of the past in Europe. In Berlin, for example, they are to be completely banned from the inner city from 2030. Great Britain wants to completely ban the purchase of new combustion engines in the same year. At the same time, diesel and petrol cars are being barred from European environmental zones by increasingly strict rules, and the purchase of a new electric car is being subsidised with large sums of money in many countries. The EU Commission also supports the switch to electric cars. It has set itself the goal of putting 30 million electric cars on European roads within 10 years.

The future belongs to electric cars. They are considered emission-free, so they do not pollute the air as combustion engines do, and they are also quiet. So they kill two birds with one stone. But electric cars are coming under increasing criticism.

While the nitrogen oxide and CO2 emissions of electric cars in road operation are indeed extremely low, they emit enormous amounts of particulate matter. This is mainly due to non-exhaust emissions, i.e. emissions that do not enter the air from the engine via the exhaust, but are produced at other sources. Especially through tyre, brake and road abrasion, electric cars contribute so enormously to the particulate matter in the air that is harmful to health. And the heavier an electric car, the greater the abrasion. This makes electric cars with a longer range particularly harmful to the environment, as they have to have much heavier batteries to store energy for long distances.

Because of these emissions, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is calling for stricter regulation of e-cars, whose pollutant emissions are currently not standardised like those of internal combustion vehicles.

However, a new study by the Kiel Institute for the World Economy does not only point to particulate emissions as a major problem with electric cars. Due to the electricity mix currently available - at least in Germany - electric cars are not climate savers, but climate sinners. According to the researchers' calculations, a complete switch to electric cars in Germany would increase electricity consumption by about 20%. This would largely be generated from fossil fuels, mostly even from coal. This will not change in the coming years. Only when the share of fossil fuels in Germany falls below 20% would electric cars actually contribute to climate protection. But we are still a long way from that: even in 2040, about 40% of Germany's energy will still come from fossil fuels.

One problem that has not yet been addressed is the extraction of raw materials for the production of e-cars. Rare earths in particular, which are found in the motors of electric cars, are nowadays mainly extracted in northern China. The mines are very harmful to the environment because acids are used to wash the metals out of the boreholes. This also produces radioactive waste products. In addition, the working conditions in the camps are usually extremely poor. The extraction of raw materials is offset by the fact that the motors and batteries of electric cars are now completely recyclable. When petroleum and natural gas are burned in vehicles with internal combustion engines, however, the end products are released into the air as exhaust gases and fine dust.

Some critics of electric cars also address the as yet unexplained effects of electromagnetic radiation on the body. The discussion already arose with mobile phones. The batteries, and thus also the radiation emitted by electric cars, are of course many times greater.

Despite government subsidies, many people remain critical of the e-car. In Germany, 59% of citizens cannot imagine buying an electric car as a new vehicle. This is not necessarily due to the problems already mentioned, but to the limited choice of mid-range models in the medium price category and, above all, the still inadequate charging structure. Even with the expansion of the charging structure, for example in the cities, travelling by electric car is currently still a mammoth logistical task. Different providers of charging structures require different registrations or apps before charging is possible. The price fluctuations between providers are also enormous. And in general, the providers are raising prices. Studies show that the price of driving an electric car cannot compete with that of a diesel vehicle.

The lack of technology for heavy vehicles is also a problem in the electrification of European roads. Batteries and motors for trucks and buses are often not yet suitable for long distances. A suitable charging structure for the heavyweights would also be needed to drive the conversion in truck and bus fleets. In a statement by the truck manufacturers Daimler, Scania, MAN & Co, it was said that it would be possible to bring only electric vehicles onto the market from 2040 onwards, but that this would also require political support, for example with regard to the charging structure, but also an increase in taxes on diesel vehicles. The urgent need to advance the technology is shown, for example, by the fact that public transport vehicles continue to run mostly on diesel, as the technology of electric models is not yet advanced enough to dare the changeover.

In some countries, such as Japan, the electric car is already widely accepted. But also in Europe, even if not the European Union, the acceptance of e-cars is already much further along than in Germany, for example. In Norway, more than 50% of newly registered cars last year were electric or hybrid cars.

Certainly, e-car technology will continue to develop in the coming years, so that batteries can be charged faster and the range of vehicles will increase. New filter systems on the brakes could also reduce non-exhaust emissions. So e-cars, perhaps not alone, but as part of a greener overall concept, can advance the mobility transition and ensure cleaner air and quieter cities.