Electric Vehicles: A Roadmap for Sustainable Mobility
What will it take to facilitate a global transition to sustainable transport of goods and people? New studies by the International Energy Agency and by Bloomberg New Energy Finance show how this goal can be achieved in a way that is both ecologically and economically viable.
A report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) finds that the global market for electric vehicles (EVs) is growing steeply, driven by strong uptake of battery-powered cars in China and elsewhere, but the 2050 milestone of net-zero carbon emissions is still elusive. Sales of EVs must be complemented by other efforts including more investment in public transportation and policy measures to foster adoption of clean mobility solutions, according to the IEA’s Global Electric Vehicle Outlook, published in May 2022.
The EV market has seen a great deal of movement recently, especially in China, where sales of electric cars account for half of global growth in the sector, thanks to low-cost manufacturing and government efforts to reduce fuel consumption. Global indicators confirm this trend: In 2021 alone, sales of EVs doubled to 6.6 million cars. That is four times higher than in 2019 and more than 50 times the number for 2012, when just 120,000 electric cars were purchased worldwide – a decade later, more EVs are sold every week.
In 2021, there were 16.5 million EVs in the world, three times as many as in 2018. In the first quarter of 2022, another two million battery-driven cars were sold, for a 75 percent increase over the same period in the previous year.
Many industrialized countries have programs to wean themselves off fossil fuels and expand EV infrastructure, including with US$30 billion in public spending, while car companies are not only offering new EV models (about 450 different ones in 2021, or five times as many as in 2015), but plan to exceed legal electrification targets.
Elusive net-zero target
Despite these promising indicators, stumbling blocks remain. Uneven uptake of electromobility means the net-zero emissions target for 2050 could be missed. In Brazil, India, and Indonesia, according to the IEA’s study, EVs account for less than one half of a percent of all car sales. Much of the recent EV growth has been driven by China, the top manufacturer and seller of electric cars, whose 3.3 million sales in 2021 topped the total number of global EV sales in 2020.
In China, a preference for smaller vehicles as well as lower R&D and manufacturing costs means EVs are just 10 percent more expensive than conventional cars, compared to 50 percent more in other major markets. Nevertheless, in the US and Europe, sales continued to grow by 60 percent and 25 percent, respectively.
More robust policies are needed to foster uptake in countries currently lagging behind. This finding is supported by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BloombergNEF) in its recent Long-Term Electric Vehicle Outlook (EVO): “There is also a widening gap between wealthy and emerging economies on EV adoption. There is a growing risk that the transition is not an equitable one, and that many economies miss out on the benefits of better air quality and new investment.”
Sourcing raw materials
Making car batteries requires a reliable and affordable supply of raw materials. Global supply chains have been disrupted by COVID-19 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resulting sanctions on one of the world’s main suppliers of many natural resources. These sourcing problems have raised prices for raw materials like cobalt, lithium, and nickel (although research on alternative battery designs is underway).
Between 2021 and May 2022, lithium prices increased sevenfold. Prices of nickel already increased steeply before the pandemic due to supply shortfalls in China, and sanctions against Russia, which supplies 20 percent of the world’s high-purity nickel, have brought more disruptions and higher costs. BloombergNEF anticipates that this trend will continue: “Raw materials supply constraints for batteries also look very tight for the years ahead. This is set to push back the point of EV price parity in some segments but will not derail the global EV market.”
EVs can not only mitigate climate change and increase air quality, but also make the global energy system more efficient. An electric motor is about three or four times more efficient than comparable combustion engines. Battery and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles are thus not only cleaner, but also much more economical than conventional designs. Reducing mobility costs could boost global economic recovery and bring down the cost of living.
To ensure that adoption of electric cars, trucks, and buses is accompanied by increasing efficiency standards, China’s government requires recipients of funds under its subsidy scheme for new energy vehicles to meet benchmarks for efficiency and performance. This should support domestic technology innovation and lead to the development of ever more efficient EVs for export. China’s prioritization of longer-range EVs has extended their range by 50 percent in the past six years.
Five ways to boost electric vehicle sales
The IEA’s Global Electric Vehicle Outlook proposes five measures for fast-tracking the replacement of combustion engines with electric motors. First, it recommends replacing direct subsidies with budget-neutral “feebate” programs, where inefficient fossil-powered engines are taxed to generate revenue for subsidizing low-emissions vehicles or EVs. Stringent efficiency and emissions standards can accelerate the mobility transition.
Zero emission vehicle sales mandates, purchase incentives and CO2 standards can all help speed up the transition
Secondly, heavy-duty electric vehicles such as electric buses and trucks should become more competitive. “Zero emission vehicle sales mandates, purchase incentives and CO2 standards can all help speed up the transition,” the report notes. In some economies, moreover, electric two- and three-wheeled vehicles and urban buses should be prioritized and supported with more charging infrastructure.
Next, political and fiscal measures to expand charging points, smart grids, and other infrastructure must be continued. Policymakers should require home chargers in parking spaces and ensure EV charging readiness in both new and existing buildings. The IEA also recommends coordination between governments to enable power grids to handle additional loads, and to facilitate two-way communication between EVs and grids for optimized charging and pricing, which would stabilize networks rather than creating additional strains.
Future-ready supply chains
Finally, the Global Electric Vehicle Outlook recommends making supply chains more secure, resilient, and sustainable. Extraction and processing of raw materials requires long lead times and timely investments, which have been neglected in the past. “Governments must leverage private investment in sustainable mining of key battery metals and ensure clear and rapid permitting procedures to avoid potential supply bottlenecks,” the authors write.
Recycling and research into alternative solutions requiring less or different critical minerals could reduce demand, and batteries must be appropriately sized to the size of the car. Coordination between producer and consumer countries, sustainable business practices, and knowledge-sharing will strengthen supply chains to achieve environmental and social development goals, paving the way for e-mobility systems that will make net-zero emissions a reality by 2050.
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