27 Oct 2017 Story Air

Don’t miss the bus: electric vehicles promise big benefits

Early adopters can make air quality, climate gains.

On the stock market, electric car maker Tesla is worth more than Ford. From 2019, all new Volvo models will be powered by electricity. France and India are among a growing number of countries sketching futures with little space for the internal combustion engine.

The revolution unfolding in the transport industry holds out the promise of significant reductions in deadly air pollution and noise, especially in our fast-growing cities, and in the greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change.

But it could also deepen global inequality, with the developing world left choking in a cloud of exhaust fumes, unless both governments and consumers in those countries can realize the benefits of these new, cleaner technologies.

“Policymakers need to move fast to see the opportunities as well as the challenges,” says Rob de Jong, the head of UN Environment’s transport unit and one of the few people in Nairobi already driving an electric car. “There will be bumps in the road. But the developing countries that embrace this first can hope to enjoy the greatest benefits.”

The number of vehicles on Earth could as much as triple by 2050 and this massive growth will be concentrated in developing regions, where rising populations and living standards mean far more people will be able to afford their own wheels. This raises huge issues around mobility, urban planning and infrastructure as well as public health.

UN Environment and partners help governments develop policies that re-imagine their cities, expand public transport and integrate it with cycling and walking. That could ease the need for private cars. However, the speed of urbanization, the spread of car ownership and the urgency of pollution issues have made the adoption of electric vehicles a pressing concern.

In Europe and North America, the fanfare surrounding electric vehicles is already deafening. The announcements by Swedish carmaker Volvo and the French government have fuelled already rising expectations that electric vehicles will become dominant much sooner than expected.

Analysts at Swiss bank UBS recently estimated the cost of owning an electric vehicle in Europe could fall to the same as a petrol-powered equivalent as early as 2018. It also doubled its sales forecast for electric cars, predicting they will make up 14 per cent of the global total in 2025, compared to less than 1 per cent now. The International Energy Agency projects that there could be 70 million electric cars on the world’s roads by then.

Countries including Norway, the Netherlands and Sweden lead the way in terms of market share for electric vehicles (29 per cent of new cars registered in Norway last year were electric). The US, Germany, France and the UK are also significant markets. But among developing countries, only China and India have made electric vehicles a clear priority.

China is the world’s biggest electric car market, with 336,000 new vehicles in 2016. With 200 million electric two-wheelers, 300,000 electric buses as well as 3 to 4 million so-called low-speed electric vehicles, China also leads in the electrification of other transport modes. The government recently told manufacturers that, by 2019, they must meet a “new energy vehicle” quota of 10 per cent.

India is trying to catch up, and ministers have set the ambitious goal of having an all-electric vehicle fleet by 2030. Government agencies will reportedly soon invite offers for 50,000 electric rickshaws and cars for use in public transport – the world’s largest tender of its kind to date. But few other developing countries have followed suit.

Many developing countries import used vehicles from wealthier regions. With time, the stream of second-hand cars coming onto those markets will include more and more electric vehicles – Nissan LEAF models imported from Japan are increasingly showing up in Kenya, for example.

To accelerate uptake, developing countries might consider policies including:

  • Lower import duties and road tax for electric vehicles
  • Eliminating subsidies on petrol and diesel (and lowering tax on electricity for vehicle charging)
  • Preferential access and exemption from congestion fees in urban areas
  • Government procurement of electric vehicles for official use and for public transport fleets
  • Technical standards and subsidies for charging equipment and batteries
  • Public information campaigns explaining the environmental and private benefits of electric vehicles

Electric vehicles are not a silver bullet. Changing the power source for cars will not directly ease congestion. Today, much of the energy that powers them is still generated by burning fossil fuels, causing pollution and emissions. But with the rise of renewables in many countries, the emissions resulting from the use of an electric vehicle will steadily diminish.

Of course, there are challenges. Drivers all over the world worry about the limited (but growing) range of electric vehicles, and the availability of charging points on longer journeys or in remote areas. In some areas, electricity is expensive and supplies unreliable. And a surge in demand from electric cars might stretch conventional power grids.

But these issues are being addressed in many countries – universal energy access is among the Sustainable Development Goals, and it is not hard to imagine that every far-sighted business, supermarket and coffee shop – as well as highway service station – will quickly install high-speed battery charging facilities. Mostly, people will charge their cars at home, saving time on visits to gas stations. Battery-swapping may become the norm for two-wheelers.

Vehicle batteries could keep the lights on and replace greenhouse-gas-belching backup generators in areas with spotty infrastructure. On a national-scale, those batteries could stabilize whole supply grids, supporting greater use of fluctuating wind and solar energy sources.

“This contribution is particularly relevant for bringing clean electricity and social and economic development opportunities for remote rural settings,” says Juergen Perschon of the European Institute for Sustainable Transport.

Moreover, the world’s growing middle class may swing quickly behind electric vehicles, once the cost comes down. It could become deeply unfashionable to drive a six-cylinder SUV, wherever you live, when the alternative is a sleek, quiet electric vehicle that boasts great acceleration as well as low environmental impact.

In the developing world, electric two-wheelers and three-wheelers are leading the way. As a low-cost alternative to private cars, they could help ease congestion, complementing the development of public transport solutions.

Another entry point is buses.

“Public investment and political priorities should focus on electric buses, on providing infrastructure for electric and non-electric bicycles as well as on investment in conventional electric rail systems,” says Perschon.

In September, four of the world’s largest bus and engine manufacturers committed to make it easier for major cities to purchase buses equipped with low emissions technologies, including electric powertrains.

The Colombian capital Bogota, for instance, has been piloting electric buses (as well as taxis) built by China’s BYD. The same company aims to enter bus markets in Africa by offering to supply the batteries – an expensive element – on a leasing basis.

Pollution is the theme of the 2017 United Nations Environment Assembly, which is meeting in Nairobi, Kenya from 4 to 6 December. All governments as well as individuals, businesses and other organizations are invited to sign the pledge and help #BeatPollution around the world.

UN Environment promotes sustainable, low-emission transport and works to reduce the sector's contribution to air pollution and climate change. For more information, contact alex.koerner[at]unenvironment.org.