The electric vehicle revolution: a sign of hope for the fight against climate change?

The transport sector is a major contributor to anthropogenic climate change. Transport accounted for one quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2016 – a level 71% higher compared to 1990, with private vehicles usually responsible for the majority of these emissions.

The electrification of individual motorised transport through the large-scale introduction of electric vehicles has hence been repeatedly proposed. In order to meet the Paris Agreement’s objective to limit global temperature increase to 1.5°C, research shows that internal combustion engine (petrol and diesel) cars need to be phased out by 2025 and hybrid cars by 2028 in the European Union. Due to the reduced emissions from electric vehicles, their widespread use would also help to decrease air pollution. Electric vehicles produce less air or smog-forming pollutants over their entire life cycle when compared to conventional cars.

Many governments worldwide support the promotion of electric vehicles. Most major motor vehicle markets have already introduced incentives to accelerate the uptake of electric cars or are considering the introduction of such measures. A wide range of measures can have a direct or indirect influence on the increased uptake of electric vehicles, including financial incentives such as tax benefits or grants as well as non-financial ones, for example mandatory quotas of electric cars for automakers or allowing electric car drivers to use bus lanes and park for free.

The mix of different measures appears to be crucial for successfully increasing the share of electric vehicles in the market as it has been for instance the case in Norway, a global pioneer in the field of electric mobility. The effectiveness of financial incentives for electric cars can be increased when combined with disincentives for conventional cars. Norway, for example, introduced both increased taxes on high-polluting cars as well as grants and/or exemptions from taxes for electric cars, thus also closing the financial gap between electric and conventional vehicles. Measures to establish a suitable charging infrastructure is indispensable, with reliable networks of charging stations still lacking in many countries and hence preventing drivers to shift to electric cars.

However, the usefulness of electric vehicles and their environmental benefits have been questioned. Different scholars criticise the production of the batteries needed for electric cars as their production emits considerable emissions and requires certain resources that are obtained under questionable environmental and social standards. This is especially true for cobalt (required for lithium batteries) which is one of the most cost-intensive resources of the batteries and to a large extent imported from the Republic of the Congo. Moreover, the electricity mix is important to consider: the environmental benefits increase with an enhanced decarbonisation of the electricity generation and a higher share of renewables. These are certainly aspects that should be kept in mind in the face of the growing enthusiasm for electric mobility.

In any case, the shift towards the electrification of individual motorised transport can only be one part of the solution of changing the transport sector. In order to significantly reduce emissions from this sector, governments need to adopt a holistic approach, including looking at possibilities to decrease the need for motorised transport and shift to cleaner public transport. Many analyses are based on the assumption that electric vehicles replace conventional cars, but the global fleet continues to grow steadily due to the increasing urbanisation and economic growth. The overall traffic volume needs to be reduced as well as innovations and investments encouraged in order to ensure the environmental benefits of electric mobility.

By Earth Restoration Service Blog Writer Theresa Stoll

Images from Wikimedia Commons