It was another year of dismal climate news. Record-breaking heat waves ravaged the Pacific Northwest. Forest fires have raged in California, Oregon, Washington and neighboring states. Tropical cyclones rapidly intensified in the Pacific Ocean. And devastating flash floods flooded Western Europe and China. Human-caused climate change is pushing the world on the road to more extreme weather events, and we are running out of time to put the brakes on, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned in August (NS: 11/9/21, p. 8).
The world must reduce its greenhouse gas emissions dramatically, and quickly, if there is any hope of preventing worse and more frequent extreme weather events. This means switching to renewable energy sources and, most importantly, decarbonizing transport, a sector which is now responsible for around a quarter of global carbon dioxide emissions.
But the path to that cleaner future is daunting, littered with political and societal hurdles, as well as scientific ones. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the electric vehicle – already on the road, already crossing many of these roadblocks – swerved so dramatically into the climate solutions spotlight in 2021.
Just a few years ago, many automakers thought electric vehicles, or electric vehicles, might be a passing fad, says Gil Tal, director of the Plug-in Hybrid & Electric Vehicle Research Center at the University of California at Davis. “It is now clear to everyone that [EVs are] here to stay. “
Globally, sales of electric vehicles surged in the first half of 2021, increasing 160% from the previous year. Even in 2020 – when most car sales were down due to the COVID-19 pandemic – sales of electric vehicles were up 46% from 2019. Meanwhile, General Motors automakers in Volkswagen to Nissan have presented plans to launch new models of electric vehicles over the next decade. : GM is committed to going all-electric by 2035, Honda by 2040. Ford has presented electric versions of its iconic Mustang and F-150 pickup trucks.
Consumer demand for electric vehicles isn’t actually driving higher sales, Tal says. The real driver is a change in supply due to government policies pushing automakers to increase their production of electric vehicles. The reinforced CO of the European Union2 Emissions laws for the auto industry came into effect in 2021, and automakers have already increased production of new electric vehicles in the region. China mandated in 2020 that electric vehicles account for 40% of new car sales by 2030. Costa Rica has set official targets for phasing out internal combustion engines.
In the United States, where transportation has officially supplanted power generation as the top greenhouse gas-emitting sector, President Joe Biden’s administration has set a target this year for 50% of gasoline sales. New vehicles in the United States are electric, both plug-in hybrids and fully electric. electric – by 2030. This is a large increase from the approximately 2.5% share of electric vehicles in new cars sold in the United States today. In September, California announced that by 2035, all new cars and pickup trucks sold in the state must be zero emissions.
There are real signs that automakers are really moving into electric vehicles. In September, Ford announced plans to build two new complexes in Tennessee and Kentucky to produce electric trucks and batteries. Climate change-related energy crises, such as the Texas power system outage in February, may also spur interest in electric vehicles, Ford CEO Jim Farley said on the Columbia Energy Exchange podcast on September 28. .
“We’re seeing more extreme weather events with global warming, so people are looking at these vehicles not just for propulsion but for… other benefits,” Farley said. “One of the most popular features of the F-150 Lightning is the fact that you can power your house for three days” from the truck’s battery.
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Although the electric vehicle market is growing rapidly, it is still not fast enough to meet Paris Agreement targets, the International Energy Agency reported this year. For the world to reach net zero emissions by 2050 – when the carbon emissions added to the atmosphere are offset by the removal of carbon – electric vehicles would need to drop from the current 5% of global car sales to 60% d ‘by 2030, according to the agency.
As for the United States, even if the Biden administration’s plan for electric vehicles comes to fruition, the country’s transportation sector will still be below its emissions targets, researchers reported in 2020 in Nature Climate Change. To meet these goals, electric cars would have to account for 90% of new car sales in the United States by 2050, otherwise people would have to drive much less.
And to truly supplant fossil fuel vehicles, electric options must meet several criteria. The prices of new and used electric vehicles must come down. Charging stations must be available and affordable for everyone, including people who do not live in homes where they can plug in. And the autonomy of the batteries must be extended. Average ranges have improved. Just five years ago, cars needed recharging after about 100 miles; today the average is about 250 miles, roughly the distance from Washington, DC to New York. But limited autonomy and too few charging stations remain a point of friction.
Today’s batteries also require metals that are rare, difficult to access or produced in mining operations plagued by serious human rights concerns. Although here too, solutions are on the horizon, including finding ways to recycle batteries to address material shortages (NS: 12/04/21, p. 4).
Electric vehicles alone are far from sufficient to prevent the worst effects of climate change. But it won’t be possible to slow global warming without them.
And in a year with a lot of grim climate news – both devastating extreme events and maddeningly stalled political action – electric vehicles offered a silver lining.
“We have the technology. It doesn’t depend on a technology that is not yet developed, ”says Tal. “The hope is that now we are much more willing to [transition to EVs] than at any time before.