How electric vehicles offered hope as climate challenges grew

In the midst of a climate crisis, the EV began to gain traction

a photo of workers in an automobile factory working on electric vehicles

Volkswagen employees in Emden, Germany, learn how to produce electric cars, as auto­makers respond to new carbon dioxide emissions limits.

Sina Schuldt/picture alliance via Getty Images

This was another year of bleak climate news. Record heat waves baked the Pacific Northwest. Wildfires raged in California, Oregon, Washington and neighboring states. Tropical cyclones rapidly intensified in the Pacific Ocean. And devastating flash floods inundated Western Europe and China. Human-caused climate change is sending the world hurtling down a road to more extreme weather events, and we’re running out of time to pump the brakes, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned in August (SN: 9/11/21, p. 8).

The world needs to dramatically reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, and fast, if there’s any hope of preventing worse and more frequent extreme weather events. That means shifting to renewable sources of energy — and, importantly, decarbonizing transportation, a sector that is now responsible for about a quarter of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions.

But the path to that cleaner future is daunting, clogged with political and societal roadblocks, as well as scientific obstacles. Perhaps that’s one reason why the electric vehicle — already on the road, already navigating 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 EVs, might be a passing fad, says Gil Tal, director of the Plug-in Hybrid & Electric Vehicle Research Center at the University of California, Davis. “It’s now clear to everyone that [EVs are] here to stay.”

Globally, EV sales surged in the first half of 2021, increasing by 160 percent compared with the previous year. Even in 2020 — when most car sales were down due to the COVID-19 pandemic — EV sales were up 46 percent relative to 2019. Meanwhile, automakers from General Motors to Volkswagen to Nissan have outlined plans to launch new EV models over the next decade: GM pledged to go all-electric by 2035, Honda by 2040. Ford introduced electric versions of its iconic Mustang and F-150 pickup truck.

Consumer demand for EVs isn’t actually driving the surge in sales, Tal says. The real engine is a change in supply due to government policies pushing automakers to boost their EV production. The European Union’s toughened CO2 emissions laws for the auto industry went into effect in 2021, and automakers have already bumped up new EV production in the region. China mandated in 2020 that EVs make up 40 percent of new car sales by 2030. Costa Rica has set official phase-out targets for 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 set a goal this year of having 50 percent of new U.S. vehicle sales be electric — both plug-in hybrid and all-electric — by 2030. That’s a steep rise over EVs’ roughly 2.5 percent share of new cars sold in the United States today. In September, California announced that by 2035 all new cars and passenger trucks sold in the state must be zero-emission.

There are concrete signs that automakers are truly committing to EVs. 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 February failure of Texas’ power system, may also boost interest in EVs, Ford CEO Jim Farley said September 28 on the podcast Columbia Energy Exchange.

“We’re seeing more extreme weather events with global warming, and 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” with the truck’s battery.

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Although the EV market is growing fast, it’s still not fast enough to meet the Paris Agreement goals, the International Energy Agency reported this year. For the world to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 — when carbon emissions added to the atmosphere are balanced by carbon removal — EVs would need to climb from the current 5 percent of global car sales to 60 percent by 2030, the agency found.

As for the United States, even if the Biden administration’s plan for EVs comes to fruition, the country’s transportation sector will still fall short of its emissions targets, researchers reported in 2020 in Nature Climate Change. To hit those targets, electric cars would need to make up 90 percent of new U.S. car sales by 2050 — or people would need to drive a lot less.

And to truly supplant fossil fuel vehicles, electric options need to meet several benchmarks. Prices for new and used EVs must come down. Charging stations must be available and affordable to all, including people who don’t live in homes where they can plug in. And battery ranges must be extended. Average ranges have been improving. Just five or so years ago, cars needed a recharge after about 100 miles; today the average is about 250 miles, roughly the distance from Washington, D.C., to New York City. But limited ranges and too few charging stations remain a sticking point.

Today’s batteries also require metals that are scarce, difficult to access or produced in mining operations rife with serious human rights issues. Although there, too, solutions may be on the horizon, including finding ways to recycle batteries to alleviate materials shortages (SN: 12/4/21, p. 4).

EVs on their own are nowhere near enough to forestall 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 — EVs offered one glimmer of hope.

“We have the technology. It’s not dependent on some technology that’s not developed yet,” Tal says. “The hope is that now we are way more willing to [transition to EVs] than at any time before.”

Carolyn Gramling is the earth & climate writer. She has bachelor’s degrees in geology and European history and a Ph.D. in marine geochemistry from MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

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