Electric vehicles could make a big dent in Europe’s stubborn transport emissions, but they aren’t an absolute cure for the pollution and social problems of mobility

The average passenger car contains about 900 kilograms of steel and its manufacture produces about 17 tonnes of carbon1. That’s a lot of resources, considering that most cars sit idle 97% of the time.

“Owning a car means buying an asset that will spend much of its life unused,” says Mauro Ravasio, lead economist for urban mobility at the European Investment Bank. “Whether you like cars or not, you have to admit that’s a terrible investment.”

The transport sector accounts for one-quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions – 70% of which comes from road transport alone. If the European Union is to meet its goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions 55% by 2030 – a key step for meeting its Paris Agreement commitment – we need to use cars as a last resort, not as our first transport option.

The eventual switch to electric vehicles will help reduce those emissions, but it’s not a cure. People will instead need to change their behaviour. Building an electric vehicle actually produces more carbon than a traditional internal combustion engine. The lower operating cost of electric vehicles – it is cheaper to charge an electric vehicle than to fill up a tank with petrol – may also push people to drive more.

“In the end, all the advantages we get from electrification might be balanced out by the fact that there will be a steep increase in car use and by the possible decline of other, more efficient, transport modes,” Ravasio says.

Changing behaviours

So how do we bring down those stubborn road transport emissions? We are going to have to prod—and sometimes push—people onto collective transport and towards active modes like walking and cycling or small electric two-wheelers. Urban public transport is the most efficient form of motorised mobility. It consumes the lowest amount of energy per kilometre travelled and emits the least carbon compared to existing technologies—even compared to electric cars.

“Governments need to be more ambitious and try to change behaviours,” Ravasio says. “And this is challenging.”

Urban public transport, however, thrives in dense environments. But the move to teleworking changed how people think about where they live, and it could result in people moving out of urban centres as they search for larger and cheaper lodging. That could facilitate urban sprawl, which is bad for emissions, the environment and biodiversity.

Electric cars and, eventually autonomous vehicles, could also end up cannibalising demand for public transport. “We could get into a downward spiral where public transport is not convenient – it can’t be supplied in an attractive way,” Ravasio says, “and the car becomes the only possible alternative.”

Electric cars advance

The move to electric vehicles is obviously good for cities. Along with lower driving emissions, electric vehicles also spew fewer harmful particles into the air – particularly compared to diesel fuels. Emissions from tyres and brakes remain the same, however, and they are not negligible. Outdoor air pollution kills an estimated 1.3 million people a year in the European Union. Electric vehicles are also quieter, helping to reduce the sometimes deafening levels of noise pollution that plague many cities.

For those reasons, a number of cities and countries are pushing the adoption of electric vehicles. The “Fit for 55” climate package launched by the European Commission, for example, contains new legislation that will reduce cars’ carbon emissions to zero by 2035. That would effectively force people to switch from cars with an internal combustion engine to electric vehicles.

Global electric vehicle sales more than doubled in 2021, after slumping in 2020 during the pandemic – like all passenger car sales. Electric vehicles also gained market share. Including hybrid and plug-in cars, they accounted for 19% of all car sales in Europe.

The strong growth in electric vehicles should help push down prices, which are still a major barrier. Cheaper electric batteries will also help reduce the cost. At the same time, concerns about electric vehicles’ autonomy are slowly being overcome as the distance they can travel between charges increases. “It is helping to reduce what is called ‘range anxiety,’ which is one of the barriers to electric vehicle acceptance,” says Caroline Lemoine, a senior engineer for urban mobility at the European Investment Bank.

Another big obstacle, though, is the lack of electric charging infrastructure, which the European Investment Bank is trying to address. The Bank has supported projects with Allego in the Netherlands, ENELX in Italy, GreenWay in Central and Eastern Europe, and Total in France, Benelux and Germany, in addition to providing loans in Spain and Italy. The European Union still has a long way to go, however, to meet its goal of 1 million charging stations. By the end of 2021, the number of charging stations stood at a little less than 300 000. Meeting the 1 million goal is a huge investment challenge.

In 2020 and 2021, the European Investment Bank signed €1.6 billion in investments supporting electric vehicles and battery project pilots in EU members. Many of those projects received funding thanks to InnovFin, an initiative created with the European Commission to accelerate and facilitate access to finance for innovative businesses and other entities.

Digital solutions

The real challenge is to redefine society’s relationship with car ownership and usage. To be fair, it’s already happening. Shared mobility is exploding, and younger generations are less enthused about car ownership than older people.

A Dutch study found that car-sharing services actually helped to reduce the amount people drive, and that many subscribers to the services had foregone car ownership altogether. Shared services could also improve the quality of life in cities, freeing up land now used for parking to be converted into parks or housing.

In many ways, mobility has become a service provided through an app. Soft modes of transport – shared bikes, scooters or small, electric motorbikes – have blossomed, thanks to digital services. Digital applications are also improving the attractiveness of public transport, by offering door-to-door solutions that combine existing infrastructure with ubiquitous soft modes.

Digital tools could increase awareness about how much each trip (car compared to public transport) actually costs by including difficult-to-track expenses like insurance and taxes. “Imagine if it were possible to pay car insurance or vehicle taxes based on the number of kilometres travelled, instead of a flat yearly fee,” Lemoine says. “Behaviours would likely change, because car users would be confronted with the actual cost of a trip, and it would influence whether they used their cars.”

Autonomous vehicles could also increase the attractiveness of public transport, by providing services that help link people to major metro or bus routes. They could add considerable flexibility, allowing public transport to move from fixed-route, fixed-timetable bus services to services that fluctuate with demand. “This will also allow public transport authorities to provide more efficient and affordable services,” Lemoine says.

The age of the car taught us one important lesson. Left unregulated, mobility will not settle at an optimal pattern of growth. It will lead to urban sprawl, congestion and pollution. That’s bad for the environment and biodiversity, but it’s also terrible for social inclusion. Ravasio and Lemoine point out that efficient, safe and affordable public transport provides access to jobs, health and education for a large swath of the population.

“We are in the middle of a climate crisis that requires urgent actions,” Ravasio says “Technology will certainly help, but innovation alone may not be sufficient.”

“On the contrary, we can all do something to make a difference right now: change our behaviours.”

1 The carbon footprint is measured in carbon dioxide equivalent, or CO2e, a term that describes different greenhouse gas emissions in a common unit.