Shifting Gears and Engines: Deploying Electric Vehicles to Save the Planet and its People

By Marc Jourdan, GFDD UN Programs & Outreach Manager


In case you hadn’t heard, new French President Emmanuel Macron announced two weeks ago that his country will end the sale of gas or diesel-powered cars by 2040!

This move follows related announcements by countries such as Norway, which seeks to fully transition to the sale of electric vehicles by 2025, the Netherlands, which is debating a similar law, and India, which wants to become a fully EV nation by 2030.

So why are all these countries suddenly switching to plug-in cars? In addition to the environmental arguments advocated for by the above-mentioned signatory countries of the recent Paris Agreement on climate change, there are also important public health reasons, including the fact that the world population is rapidly increasing (the UN estimates the world population to reach 9.8 billion in 2050, and 11.2 billion in 2100 from 7.6 billion today). In 2016, the UN estimated that 54.5 percent of the world’s population lived in urban settlements and by 2030 it foresees that urban areas will house 60 percent of people globally (this means that one in every three people will live in cities). This will have a significant impact on air pollution, an issue which rapidly industrializing countries such as India and China are grappling with on a daily basis. China in particular, as we will see below, is the trend setter in terms of the evolution of the electric vehicle market.

But how big is the environmental impact of the transportation industry? The World Bank reports that transportation produces around 23 percent of the global CO2 emissions from fuel combustion. It is also the industry with the fastest growing consumption of fossil fuels and the fastest growing source of CO2 emissions. With rapid urbanization in developing countries, energy consumption and CO2 emissions by urban transport are therefore increasing rapidly.

In China, the issue is very worrying, as a World Bank study of 17 sample cities in China noted that urban transport energy use and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have recently grown between 4 and 6 percent a year in major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Xi’an. In China’s capital city, Beijing, the issue of air pollution is in fact slowly choking its citizens and the economy, as the city’s concentration of PM 2.5 particles – those small enough to penetrate deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream – recently hit 505 micrograms per cubic meter (The World Health Organisation recommends a safe level of 25). The worsening air pollution has also grounded flights, closed highways, and even kept tourists from visiting Beijing’s Forbidden City when it closed its doors, preventing 11,200 people from visiting the site!

So, to what extent will electric vehicles (EVs) be rolled out to combat these issues? There is a growing belief that EVs represent the future of automobiles. Forbes magazine recently reported that technology costs have declined significantly, with battery costs approximately 20% of what they were five years ago. Together with technological innovations and substantial new battery capacity coming on stream in China, this bodes well for further price declines. At the infrastructure level, charging stations are also being extensively deployed in China, the United States and other major countries around the world. Finally, EVs have lower operating costs than gas-powered vehicles, even at today’s oil prices. As technology costs drive the initial price of EVs lower, price parity with gas-powered vehicles and lower operating costs will make a compelling economic case for EVs. And China is taking the lead on this.

Being the most populous country in the world and expecting to host over one-third of the world’s 600 largest mega cities by 2025, China has now pulled ahead of other countries. In 2016, 507,000 EVs were sold there, a 53% increase from 2015. Meanwhile, 222,200 EVs were sold in Europe, a 14% increase; and 157,130 units were sold in the United States, a 36% increase from the prior year.

climate-change-2254711_1920.jpgAt the environmental level, one issue to overcome in this rapid new vehicle deployment is the fact that the high shares of EVs will require significant additional electricity generation. In the absence of coordination by countries this may put significant stress on electricity infrastructure. The EU Commission reports that even between countries with a similar share of renewable energy, management strategies to accommodate the charging of a large number of electric vehicles can be very different, depending on the types of renewable energy and conventional power generation in each country. That being said, the EU Commission has also confirmed that the avoided CO2 emissions in the road transport sector would outweigh the higher emissions from electricity generation. Indeed, a net reduction of 255 megatons of CO2 could be delivered in 2050, an amount equivalent to around 10% of the total emissions from all sectors for that year in the region.

Finally, turning to the public health benefit, emissions from road transport occur at ground level and generally in areas where people live and work, such as cities and towns, meaning that much of the population is exposed to them. In contrast, power stations are generally outside cities, in less populated areas. Because of this lower exposure, a shift of emissions from the road transport sector to the power generation sector can therefore be beneficial for health.

Although they are starting to help alleviate the immediate air pollution crisis experienced in countries like China and India, EVs are just one way in which we can move toward a more resource-efficient economy and decarbonized transportation system to effectively combat climate change. Replacing gas-powered vehicles with electric vehicles can help reduce emissions, although how much it will benefit the environment depends significantly upon the source used to charge vehicles: whether renewable, nuclear power or fossil fuel sources. Replacing the fleet of urban vehicles will not solve all the other transport-related problems which include traffic congestion and increasing demand for road infrastructure. As advocated by the international community during the recent 2017 UN High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, we need to achieve “systematic transformation,” that includes renewable biofuels, a shift towards public transport and changes to how we use our transport systems.


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