Electric Vehicles: The Road to Carbon Neutrality & Sustainable Transport

At A Glance – The Road to Sustainable Development

There’s a need for speed when it comes to the adoption of electric vehicles for road users. They will prove to be an essential tool to help achieve a 1.5 – 2 degree pathway that limits the destruction caused by the acceleration of climate change.

In June 2019, then Prime Minister Theresa May committed the United Kingdom to a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050, no small feat. Since then, the world has been turned on its head by coronavirus which has created a global health crisis and an impending economic recession closely following in its wake. In a new world order that focuses on green fiscal stimulus packages to reboot our economies, what role do EVs have to play? Outdated transport systems and traditional motor vehicles hinder our ability to achieve terms outlined in the 2015 Paris Agreement and 2030 United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.

The push to vastly reduce pollution, alleviate the intrinsic health consequences of particular matter as well as promote energy efficiency and green innovation is justified by the seismic carbon savings of EVs in the long term. Elon Musk is no fool; innovations in the motor industry with the likes of Tesla have put the conversation of future transport firmly on the agenda for all stakeholders; whether that be car manufacturers, legislators, energy providers or citizens and the media.

This article investigates the need for mass adoption of EVs to protect our biosphere and planetary boundaries. It examines the policies and infrastructure required to stimulate uptake of these vehicles.  It provides context on the UK’s contemporary situation and global leaders in the market.

It highlights the carbon savings that can be gained from the EV revolution and provides examples of lust worthy models pioneering the space. By weighing in on limitations surrounding the life cycle impact of batteries and level of coal intensive electricity generation dependency in production areas, I seek to provide a balanced argument. One that positions EVs away from being an instant panacea to the climate emergency as they still accrue a carbon debt.

Finally, it presents areas of future opportunity surrounding innovation in new battery material technologies, public transport and shared car ownership models to harness the technology and scale up.

In Focus

Why We Need Electric Vehicles

Currently, the road-transportation sector that consists of passenger cars, trucks, buses and other such vehicles, accounts for 15% of carbon dioxide emitted each year.

EVs are of fundamental importance in reducing the human impact on the environment. This is because:

  • They are more energy efficient
  • They emit fewer GHGs across their lifecycle
  • They do not leak oil or fumes
  • They are a salient tool in improving public health

These factors mitigate the fall out of the earth’s warming and prevent us from the danger of crossing further planetary boundaries.

The urgency is solidified by recent research conducted by McKinsey which found that the sales of EVs would need to grow by nearly 25% annually between 2016-2030, if the world is to pursue the optimum 1.5 degree pathway.

Policies that are mandatory for such a target would include:

  • Regulations that discourage private vehicle usage
  • Banning cars in city centres
  • Taxing vehicles on a per mile travelled basis
  • Encouraging the use of public transport through heavy government subsidies.

We are currently witnessing a behavioural shift of the transportation sector as lockdown restrictions of the coronavirus are eased. Milan, Paris, and London are working to reconfigure their transport networks to accommodate increased pedestrian and cycling routes and cities like Bristol have already banned the use of diesel cars in its centre from 2021.  

The Main Types of Electric Vehicles 

How did the electric vehicle come to be? Believe it or not, the first electric car was built in 1837 in Aberdeen in Scotland by Robert Davison. This technology was applied to battery powered taxis in London and New York towards the late end of the nineteenth century. However was neglected in the shadow of oil fuelled engines.

How do they work? In replacement of a fuel tank, the on-board battery of an EV is charged and this stores that energy power to drive its motor and wheels. EVs have no need for a clutch, gearbox or exhaust pipe which makes for a smoother and quieter drive. Hence why you never hear when your Toyota Prius Uber is approaching!!

Internal combustion engine cars (ICEs) are only 30% efficient as their remaining energy is either lost as heat or noise which is detrimental to the people and planet versus an EV where 95% of energy generated is put into motion.

E.on estimates that a standard EV can run for over 400km before needing to be recharged. This means that the majority of journeys could be accomplished easily as 94% of all car journeys are under 25 miles in length with 56% being less than five miles.

To understand the benefits of EVs over conventional models on the environment, Carbon Brief conducted a factcheck on this exact topic. They found that in 2019 in the UK, the lifetime emissions per kilometre of driving a Nissan Leaf EV were close to three times lower than for the average conventional car as illustrated below. This was before they accounted for the decrease in carbon intensity of electricity generation across the car’s entire lifetime.  

Source: Carbon Brief

Conventional hybrids like the infamous Toyota Prius are built with a motor powered by a battery and have had a seismic effect in raising the profile of EVs. It is worth mentioning there is not a clear dichotomy between EVs as good and ICEs as harmful. Limitations and dependency factors are outlined in further detail in the ‘Obstacles’ section of this article.

The UK’s Race to Electrification

In February 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the banning of sales of ICEs from 2035. For many, this came as a shock, as expected the date to be a further into the future, i.e. at least 2040. However, amidst wide pressure the Government acknowledged the need for speed.

Next Green Car reported that as of 2020, over 298,000 plug-in cars were recorded on the road, compared with just 3,500 in 2013. This trajectory is in line with global trend in purchasing EVs and is wholly encouraging.

Source: IEA

According to Carbon Brief, in the UK, emissions from electricity generation have fallen 38% in just the past three years and are expected to fall by more than 70% by the mid-to-late 2020s, which is well within the lifetime of electric vehicles purchased today.

However, in recent years, there have been a number of counterintuitive actions that go against Boris’s commitment to decarbonising road transportation. For example, in 2018 ministers ended grants of up to £2,500 for those that bought plug in hybrid cars. They also cut subsidies for EVs from £3,500 down to £1000 which proves problematic as EVs remain considerably more expensive than conventional ICEs.

Why the higher price? This is rationalised due to the expense of the batteries which represent a third of the price of the car. As battery costs begin to fall, the price gap will narrow which will stimulate a spike in demand.

The embracing of EVs by motorists has been further slowed by limitations regarding range anxiety and the ability to meet distance needs without charging. Whilst the average commute is estimated to be 11 miles according to the RAC, the typical EV is able to drive 200 miles per charge, with more sophisticated models supporting the capacity to hit around 300 miles.

At this current time, the UK has approximately 30,000 public charging points at over 11,00 locations across the country. How does this facilitate our trajectory towards carbon neutrality?

The answer is, to a very limited extent. Scottish Power calculated that to reach the net zero target by 2050, 25.3 million charging points will be needed, at a cost of £45.9 billion. To facilitate this transition, the country must review its power grid and power generation infrastructure.

Looking across the continent, in May, European Commission President Ursual Von Den Leyen set out her coronavirus rescue plan incorporated within the Green Deal strategy which seeks net zero emissions by 2050. Bloomberg Green reported that spending in such proposals would include up to €80 billion to boost EV sales and double investment in charging networks. They would also create options to make EVs exempt from VAT, and an annual €10 billion boost to renewable energy and hydrogen infrastructure, to name but a few.

One can only speculate as to what extent the UK will follow a similar pathway to that of the European Union as we navigate our exit from the institution. Regardless of our membership status, I hope the Government will align our strategies to that of our European neighbours. For more on the European Green New Deal, head here.

The Countries On Track

Norway is the pioneer of EVs across the globe. Battery powered cars make up over 50% of new car sales in this Scandinvian country versus the UK’s measly 1.6%.  

Incentivisation measures have strengthened their leading position. For instance, EV drivers can use bus lanes, parking is often free, there are tax breaks on these cars and there is the necessary level of charging infrastructure to support their wide uptake.

Source: Statista

Italy is another country making huge strides. They have exempted EVs from the annual circulation tax and ownership tax for the first five years from the date of their initial registration. Significant incentivisation is having tangible success and if you wander around Milan, compact efficient EVs line the pavements. Interestingly, it has also been reported that Denmark now has more EV charging docks than petrol stations!

The Car Industry’s Commitment

Leading industry players have made strong commitments to embracing the EV revolution. Volkswagen, the world’s largest automaker, has pledged to invest over €20 billion in making zero emission vehicles by 2030. Elsewhere, Volvo announced they would stop making vehicles powered purely by combustion engines by 2019 and Mercedes have pledged to manufacture EV models of all their vehicles by 2020.

In the luxury car sector, EVs are maximising their full potential, marrying aesthetics and performance with minimised carbon emissions. Here’s my top three:

  • 2020 Porche Taycan
  • Aston Martin Rapid E
  • The 2019 Model S Tesla

On a more mass-market scale, the Nissan leaf has sold over 500,000 models globally and Mini Electric, launched in March 2020, is garnering much attention.

A truly impressive example of innovation is Volvo’s electric sub brand Polestar and their new Precept model. This motor has seats fashioned from PET plastic bottles, recycled materials deployed which create head rests from old cord and carpets from discarded fishing nets. This model is 100% plant based with all interiors being vegan.

Current Obstacles

As aforementioned, it is not a clear dichotomy of good versus evil in the realm of EVs and ICEs as their potential to mitigate environmental impacts rely on numerous factors. The complexities can depend on:

  • The size of the vehicles
  • The accuracy of fuel economies
  • How electricity emissions are calculated
  • Where the vehicles are driven
  • General driving patterns

A current glaring challenge for EVs is their batteries. Battery powered EVs can have up to a 50% lower life cycle than carbon dioxide emissions. However, the overall impact of the production of these cars has fallen under scrutiny due to the significant proportion of carbon embedded in battery production. This accrues an environmental toll which varies depending on manufacturing location and the model’s potential mileage. For the majority, batteries and other components are produced from energy derived from fossil fuels in manufacturing facilities.

Source: Carbon Brief

Notably, the region where an EV battery is produced plays a substantial role on the final evaluation of the car’s life cycle impact. For example, the best-selling Tesla Model 3 has its batteries produced in a factory run on renewable energy. Life cycle emissions estimates have found that batteries in the US are generally substantially lower than those produced in Asia as this depends on a country’s coal intensive electricity generation. For nations that rely heavily on coal for electrification, benefits are minimised and their efficiency may actually mirror traditional ICEs or older hybrid models.  

Again, using Tesla as an example – their Gigafactory has electricity that is on average 30% lower in carbon intensity than the remainder of the United States. California and New York generate electricity through cleaner practices than the middle parts of the country in the rust or industrial belts. Thus, smart geographies of production are critical in minimising impact of EV production.

As nations across the globe ramp up their electricity generation to decarbonise and meet climate targets, all of these relative carbon emissions accrued in the life cycle will fall, especially for newer models.

A final obstacle is ensuring the correct charging infrastructure is in place to truly harness the potential of EVs. Smart systems that use fast connectors will be essential but at this current time, if EV usage surged dramatically, local electricity networks wouldn’t have the capacity to charge efficiently. Thus, this requires significant network reinforcement. According to the National Grid’s Future Energy Scenarios, they estimate that EVs could increase electricity demand by 10% in 2040. What’s more, My Electric Avenue note that local electricity grids may struggle when clusters of homes have a rate of 40-70% EV ownership. Controlled charging infrastructure creates the opportunity for huge investments and will balance peak demands as adoption of EVs rise.

Source: Tesla

Final Thoughts – Incentivise to Scale

Integrating EVs at scale into road transport will contribute to our ability to achieve carbon neutrality. Future opportunities exist in the realm of new battery chemistries, strategically placed charging infrastructure and a review of fossil fuel powered electricity grids. Their technology must be leveraged at scale in modes of public transport such as buses to incentivise a reduction in their lifecycle impact and overall road usage to decrease greenhouse gas emissions.

EVs are by no means an antidote to combatting the climate emergency but the scaling of commitments will propel us closer towards a low carbon economy. To facilitate this we will need:

  • Smart, low carbon electricity grids
  • A carefully monitored market
  • Local action by councils to ensure the correct infrastructure is in place
  • Support from environmental specialists to drive progress
  • Most importantly, the correct government incentivisation measures

Cars are practical, for some they are essential, for others they are a toy, an investment or an instrument to reflect one’s wealth. Regardless of purchase motivation, the alteration of road transport behaviours has a roaring power to contribute towards our ability to meet net zero.

If you found this article interesting, read the latest decoded features on why we need a green economic recovery and how climate change affects our health.  

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