In a milestone for the environment, Europeans purchased more electric cars than those powered by diesel last month. According to recent data, over 20 per cent of new cars sold in Europe and the United Kingdom (UK) in December 2021 were electric. Meanwhile, the sale of diesel vehicles in the European Union (EU) slipped below 19 per cent.
While many developed nations have pledged to phase out petrol and diesel vehicles in the next 20 years to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the transition will be more complicated in developing countries where old imported cars are often the most affordable option. A 2020 report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) found that the three largest exporters of used vehicles – Europe, Japan and the United States exported 14 million used light-duty vehicles worldwide between 2015 and 2018.
We spoke to Rob de Jong, head of the Sustainable Mobility Unit at UNEP, to find out more about the rise in electric vehicle sales and what can be done to support this transition globally.
What could the increase in electric vehicle sales mean for Europe in regards to air pollution and emissions reductions?
Rob De Jong (RDJ): This trend shows that consumers are keenly interested in shifting to cleaner vehicles due to a combination of factors. The first is economic incentives. Electric vehicle subsidies were (and often still are) very high at several thousands of dollars per vehicle, although governments are slowly reducing these subsidies as they become more mainstream.
Second, diesel vehicle sales have continued to decline since we discovered that actual emissions were much higher than we thought – after some manufacturers were caught cheating on emissions tests. Meanwhile, the sale of electric vehicles globally has doubled every year, with the highest growth rates in Europe. The leader is Norway, where 80 per cent of all new vehicles are currently being sold are fully electric.
This has massive benefits for pollutant and climate emissions as diesel vehicles are a leading contributor to small particulate emissions pollution, so-called PM 2.5, which has major health impacts. In contrast, electric vehicles have no tailpipe and therefore no exhaust emissions. Air pollution and the climate change characteristics of the electricity source are also critical factors.
What kind of regulatory framework and infrastructure helped Europe to reach this goal?
RDJ: Many European countries used subsidies for new and used electric vehicles, whilst others set dates in the near future for the complete phase-out of petrol vehicles (for example, UK 2030). Most countries have introduced a network of charging stations, allowing for fast charging of electric vehicles, and some cities banned the entry of old diesel vehicles in their city centres. Awareness campaigns have also helped to inform consumers.
The introduction of electric vehicles goes hand in hand with the decarbonization of the electricity grid – more electricity is generated from renewable sources such as wind and solar, making electric vehicles more and more climate-friendly. At the same time, manufacturers are rapidly increasing the number of electric models available in the market. A few years ago, only a few models were available. Today, almost all major brands have multiple electric vehicle models. Some brands have set a date after which they will only sell electric vehicles, and they are getting cheaper, while specifications such as range are improving.
Can developing countries aspire to do the same, or must they follow a different pathway?
RDJ: To achieve the targets of the Paris Agreement, we have to switch to zero-emissions mobility worldwide. We should not forget that we also need to better design our cities and promote walking, cycling, and public transport. In 2050 globally, two out of three vehicles will be found in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), so we must also include LMICs in shifting to zero-emissions mobility. We can’t afford for developed countries to switch while developing countries continue using fossil fuel vehicles.
There are many good reasons for LMICs to make the shift. It is predicted that the number of vehicles in LMICs will grow by 1 billion by 2050. So, we can still avoid a major increase in fossil-fueled vehicles by putting in place the right measures. Building local manufacturing capacity for e-mobility, such as manufacturing and assembling electric motorcycles locally, can also create green jobs. A relatively large share of the climate emissions of some LMICs come from the transport sector, so introducing zero-emission e-mobility will be key to achieving national climate targets.
In addition, LMICs have the highest urbanization rates – cities are growing rapidly. Switching to low- and no-emissions mobility now can help prevent major air pollution in many megacities. As cities around the world have shown – fixing this later is much more difficult -and costly- than preventing it in the first place.
How is UNEP helping countries make the shift to e-mobility?
RDJ: UNEP is implementing a major global programme to support LMICs in joining the global switch to zero-emissions e-mobility. Largely funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), UNEP’s Global Electric Mobility Programme is supporting more than 50 LMICs by developing policies and standards, accessing financing, and developing local industry. It also provides technical support, creates regional platforms with suppliers and financiers, and implements regional training programmes.