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By Neil Valentine, Merijn Martens and Birgitte Keulen
Close your eyes and imagine a city without traffic jams. Cars’ honking and screeching are gone, and vehicles hum along softly. The only real nuisance is the occasional cries of children playing football. You take a deep breath. The burnt smell in the air has been replaced by the sweet scent of fresh earth. Your child’s persistent cough has quieted, and your eyes no longer sting.
We have a lot to gain in the fight against carbon emissions and other nuisances from transport. Cities have not always been the healthiest places to live, but that is changing. Good sanitation, industry regulation and better vehicle standards have already improved city life remarkably. But more can be done.
Goodbye to tailpipe emissions
The fight against climate change and the decarbonisation of transport can bring untold benefits to cities. Among others things, the transition to electric vehicles will put a stop to tailpipe emissions. An electric vehicle isn’t only cleaner than an internal combustion vehicle, it’s also more efficient. In rough terms, electric vehicles consume one-third of the energy of traditional cars.
While the market penetration of electric cars is still low, their numbers are growing exponentially. In 2018, the number of electric vehicles on the road surged to 5.1 million, up 2 million from 2017. Most of those electrical vehicles, 45%, were in China, with the European Union making up 24% and the United States 22%, according to the International Energy Agency. While the growth is impressive, electric vehicles still represent only a small fraction of the more than 1 billion cars on the road.
Some European countries are changing that. Norway is one of the most successful countries in adopting electric vehicles. In 2019, for the first time ever, fully electric vehicles accounted for the the majority of new car sales. In the Netherlands, the market share of electric cars is increasing fast. In June 2019, the Tesla Model 3 became the top selling model in the Netherlands.
Europe has also made progress addressing the other part of the electric puzzle: the charging infrastructure. The number of charging stations in the European Union surged from a mere 3 800 in 2011 to more than 150 000 expected by the end of 2019. The rollout is being fuelled by projects like Enel X Mobility, which plans to install 14 000 charging stations in Italy by 2022. The European Investment Bank (EIB) is supporting the project with a €115 million loan. Other similar projects are also receiving EIB support, like Allego and GreenWay.
The challenges for electrification
While all this is good news, electric vehicles still face many challenges. For one, the costs of batteries have to come down for electric cars to be as affordable as conventional cars. Progress is encouraging. Data from BNEF, Bloomberg’s research service, shows that the electric car prices have fallen 85% from 2010 to 2018.
Another challenge is transforming vehicle manufacturing and transport infrastructure, both public and private. That transformation will require massive investment. In a white paper, the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), analysed the costs, benefits and necessary government funding to transition passenger vehicles to zero emissions. The ICCT reported that through mid-2018, carmakers had already announced more than $300 billion in investments. In the ICCT’s view, those investments will eventually pay for themselves through savings on fuel and maintenance. The benefits start to outweigh the investment costs by 2025 in the United States and by 2028 in Germany.