In a major step for the environment, Europeans bought more electric cars than diesel-powered cars last month. According to recent data, more than 20% 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%.
While many developed countries have pledged to phase out gasoline and diesel vehicles over 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 Program (UNEP) found that the three largest used vehicle exporters – Europe, Japan and the United States exported 14 million light vehicles from opportunity worldwide between 2015 and 2018.
We spoke to Rob de Jong, Head of UNEP’s Sustainable Mobility Unit, to find out more about the rise in electric vehicle sales and what can be done to support this transition globally.
What could increased electric vehicle sales mean for Europe in terms of air pollution and reduced emissions?
Rob De Jong (RDJ): This trend shows that consumers are strongly interested in switching to cleaner vehicles due to a combination of factors. The first concerns economic incentives. Subsidies for electric vehicles were (and often still are) very high, at several thousand dollars per vehicle, although governments are slowly reducing these subsidies as they become more common.
Second, sales of diesel vehicles 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 worldwide has doubled every year, with the highest growth rates in Europe. The leader is Norway, where 80% of all new vehicles currently sold are fully electric.
This has significant benefits for pollution and climate emissions, as diesel vehicles are one of the main contributors to small particle emissions pollution, known as PM 2.5, which has major health impacts. In contrast, electric vehicles have no tailpipes and therefore no tailpipe emissions. Air pollution and climate change characteristics of the electricity source are also critical factors.
What kind of regulatory framework and infrastructure has helped Europe achieve this goal?
RJ: Many European countries have used subsidies for new and used electric vehicles, while others have set dates in the near future for the complete phase-out of petrol vehicles (eg UK 2030). Most countries have set up a network of charging stations, allowing fast charging of electric vehicles, and some cities have banned the entry of old diesel vehicles into their city centers. Awareness campaigns have also helped inform consumers.
The introduction of electric vehicles goes hand in hand with the decarbonisation of the electricity grid – more electricity is produced from renewable sources such as wind and solar, making electric vehicles increasingly climate-friendly. At the same time, manufacturers are rapidly increasing the number of electric models available on the market. A few years ago, only a few models were available. Today, almost all major brands have several models of electric vehicles. 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 should they follow a different path?
RJ: To achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement, we must move to zero-emission mobility worldwide. Let’s not forget that we also need to design our cities better and promote walking, cycling and public transport. By 2050, globally, two out of three vehicles will be in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), so we also need to include LMICs in the shift to zero-emission mobility. We cannot afford developed countries to switch vehicles while developing countries continue to use fossil fuel vehicles.
There are many good reasons for PRITIs to make the switch. The number of vehicles in LMICs is predicted to increase by one billion by 2050. So we can still avoid a major increase in fossil-fuel vehicles by putting the right measures in place. Building local manufacturing capacity for electric mobility, such as local manufacturing and assembly of electric motorcycles, can also create green jobs. A relatively large part of the climate emissions of certain LMICs comes from the transport sector. Introducing zero-emission electric mobility will therefore be key to achieving national climate goals.
In addition, LMICs have the highest rates of urbanization – cities are growing rapidly. Switching to low-emission or zero-emission mobility now can help prevent major air pollution in many megacities. As cities around the world have shown, solving this problem later is much more difficult – and expensive – than preventing it in the first place.
How does UNEP help countries transition to e-mobility?
RJ: UNEP is implementing a major global program to help LMICs join the global shift to zero-emission electric mobility. Largely funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), UNEP’s Global Electric Mobility Program supports more than 50 LRICs by developing policies and standards, accessing finance and developing local industry. It also provides technical support, creates regional platforms with suppliers and financiers, and implements regional training programs.