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Which pollutes the most: a 1.5-liter Volkswagen Golf or a Ferrari 812 GTS with a 12-cylinder engine?

Most people would say the Ferrari, but the correct answer is more nuanced, according to the Italian sportscar manufacturer. Its boss, Louis Camilleri, says it depends on how much you drive it.

During an investor call last week, Camilleri took issue with European environmental regulations that aim to cut transport emissions by penalizing the sale of vehicles with particularly thirsty engines. “If you take a V12 Ferrari that only runs 3,000 kilometers a year, probably it has less emissions than a very small car that runs every day,” he said. The car industry needs to do a better job of educating regulators, he added.

You can see where Camilleri’s coming from. Ferrari’s wealthy customers often own several of its sportscars, which they treat as prized works of art rather than runabouts. From a climate perspective, what matters is the total volume of carbon spewed into the atmosphere.

Still, I think this is one battle Ferrari is destined to lose. Governments are rightly clamping down on carmakers’ carbon emissions to prevent catastrophic climate change. The earsplitting growl of a Ferrari engine is a potent symbol, even if it isn’t the primary problem.

Camilleri shouldn’t lose heart, however. Selling electric vehicles could boost Ferrari’s already stratospheric profit margins, and catalyze a wider industry shift away from polluting fuels.

Until recently Ferrari had little cause for environmental complaint. A low-volume car producer, it isn’t subject to the same stringent rules — starting this year — that tell European manufacturers to not exceed an average of 95 grams of carbon dioxide emission per km. Ferrari only has to achieve 277g of CO2 per km. Hence its average fleet emissions are still pretty high:

The regulatory environment is, nonetheless, getting tougher. In several large markets there are plans to ban combustion engine vehicles altogether. Norway will do so from 2025, the U.K. might follow by 2030 and California will join them in 2035. In the nearer term, France wants to get people who buy polluting vehicle to pay an additional gas-guzzlers tax, which could add 50,000 euros ($58,630) to the cost of a Ferrari by 2022. Even deep-pocketed fans of the prancing horse might balk at that.

Ferrari isn’t ignoring green matters The new SF90 Stradale is its first series production plug-in-hybrid, and by 2022 Ferrari says 60% of its models will have a hybrid powertrain. It won’t, though, have an electric car for several more years.

In fairness, one can understand the caution. The fact that some Ferraris rarely leave the garage complicates the cost-benefit calculation of electrification. Manufacturing batteries produces carbon emissions too: The environmental benefits compared to a combustion engine improve the more a vehicle is driven.

And Camilleri, 65, isn’t sure that purist customers will make the electric switch. He thinks fully electric vehicles won’t comprise even half of Ferrari’s sales during his lifetime and they’ll never reach 100%. To put that in context, BloombergNEF projects that by 2040 electric models overall will comprise 58% of global vehicle sales.

The problem for Camilleri is that tastes do change, especially if his rivals make compelling electric sportscars. While his desire to protect the brand is understandable, Ferrari also has a responsibility to lead on environmental matters because of its massive racing fanbase.

The company risks losing a younger generation of car buyers who might start to prefer manufacturers such as Tesla Inc. Porsche has shown it’s possible to produce an electric sportscar — the Taycan — that doesn’t leave fans feeling shortchanged.

Plus electric vehicles could be more profitable over the longer term than their combustion engine equivalents. By getting rid of the complex gasoline powertrain, a fully electric Ferrari might have a lower bill of materials. That would fatten the company’s industry-leading profit margins, according to Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas.

Even then, one doubts Ferrari owners will consider using their vehicles to ferry the kids to class. If they did, an electric model would more likely be met with nods of approval by other parents, rather than a scowl.

Chris Bryant is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering industrial companies.

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