The transport industry is currently on the precipice of a revolution. 27% of all emissions in the UK come from transport, meaning it is a race against time to decarbonise. This revolution is most apparent with the fast roll-out of electric passenger vehicles. Data from New AutoMotive shows that over 190,000 electric vehicles (EVs) were sold in the UK last year, making up 11.65% of the new car market, just nudging past the diesel share. 2022 looks set to be another record-breaking year for EV sales, but it could be even higher with the right government policies. Despite the fact that EVs are a hugely popular practical solution to the climate crisis, considerable misinformation is stalling progress.
Common anti-EV myths
The term ‘technology agnostic policy’, for the most part, is the strategy the UK government is implementing in order to reach the Net Zero by 2050 target. They are not choosing a certain technology to get us there but simply pushing the market to reach the target in the most viable way possible. However, a common criticism levelled at the transition to electric is that the market is being artificially pushed by the government and neither the market nor consumers want this change. The reality is that these things are not mutually exclusive and in order for a fairly distributed transition to occur some government intervention is necessary. Over 40 countries have signed up to gasoline and diesel phase-outs and many major OEMs have pledged to transition to an all-electric fleet. And the customers have followed in increasing numbers—an estimated 4.2 million EVs were sold worldwide last year.
So what about the other technology that is not being favoured? The two most talked about alternatives to EVs are hydrogen and low carbon fuels. Sceptics will use these technologies to stoke fears that they will render the electrification process useless imminently. However, no hydrogen is currently made through renewable means on a mass scale in the UK; it is made from methane, a fossil gas. Blue hydrogen has the potential to emit as much pollution as the equivalent of 1.5 million ICE vehicles by 2050. And alternative fuels are still polluting and emit carbon from the tailpipe, even if that is at a reduced scale than conventional fuels. A future of offsetting should not be the aim when true carbon neutrality is within grasp. A technology agnostic policy works when there are numerous solutions on a level pegging. Once one is clearly winning the government needs to help mitigate any remaining risk.
Another misconception is that the future lies in hybridisation, using fuels and electricity to power transport. Hybrid vehicles took off when the technology around EVs was patchy. There is a perfectly valid argument to say hybrids acted as a good bridging technology between fully fossil fuel-dependent vehicles and EVs when the technology and the infrastructure were not there. However, hybrids are increasingly looking like a defunct technology, and a dangerous one at that. Research from Transport and Environment shows that plug-in hybrid models (PHEVs) could be up to eight times more polluting than their official tests say. These PHEVs tend to be heavy SUVs which are often driven in non-electric mode, meaning the heavy battery is essentially dead weight.
Data taken from New Automotive of a three-month rolling average sees a tentative waning of hybrid growth. This is not to say hybrids are on the way out but it does show EVs making inroads on all fuel types and a clear consumer appetite for full electrification. Specifically looking at PHEVs, we see a worldwide trend of declining sales rates and in Norway PHEV sales for February had plummeted 75% from the previous month. Consumers, when deciding on a plug-in version of a vehicle, are overwhelmingly choosing fully electric. Even Stellantis, whose CEO has been quoted as saying that BEVs are products being forced by governments, has unveiled a large new ‘electrification plan’ with a target to reach 100% BEV sales in Europe by 2030. This certainly would not be happening if the demand from the market and consumers was not there as well.
The risk to the environment that EVs pose is another part of the misconceptions that play a part in the myths surrounding EVs. Myths such as their green credentials being unproven or that they are worse for the environment than their ICE counterparts still do the rounds. Let’s break down the two biggest issues: the lifecycle emissions question, and the dirtiness of the grid.
Lifecycle emissions encompasses all the pollution associated with a vehicle being produced, including the extraction of raw materials, manufacturing, usage and then recycling and scrapping the vehicle. The misconception is that the energy used in making the battery negates the zero tailpipe emissions. The reality is a more complex one and the specific sources of the resources will determine how much pollution is caused. However, it is never worse than ICE vehicles. On average, after a year of use, the ICE vehicle has overtaken EVs and continues to surpass them. With the average lifecycle of a vehicle being 14 years this is a large reduction of CO2 and other pollutants.
There is also a misconception that EV batteries will last only between five and eight years before needing to be replaced. However, this is how long most manufacturers place a warranty on the batteries. The predicted lifecycle of a car battery is between ten and 20 years. The process of making batteries continually improve shows EVs are a green technology getting greener by the day.
The grid has also been the subject of rumours. There is the common misconception that an EV being used in Poland gives off the same lifetime emissions as its gasoline and diesel counterparts. This is false. Poland does have one of the dirtiest grids in the EU but even taking this into account EVs still reduce emissions. Research by Transport and Environment of a worst case scenario shows that an EV produced in China and run in Poland would still emit 22% less CO2 than diesels and 28% less CO2 than gasoline on average in life-cycle emissions. And with the EU committed to decarbonising the grid, this will only get better.
The key is that EVs are on the trajectory of becoming cheaper and more efficient. The graph from the ICCT shows that although the amount of pollution varies from place to place, there is nowhere in the world where BEVs are worse than ICEVs to run.
The real risk lies with not taking the opportunities that decarbonising the transport sector holds. The transition to EVs presents manifold economic opportunities, and it is a savvy government that enacts ambitious policies to get ahead of the curve. Rather than hesitating at the brink of the growth of this new technology, governments should find a way to promote and adapt to it; the prize is reduced emissions, cleaner air, new jobs and investment, energy independence and more affordable transport. That is a thrilling opportunity.
About the author: Ciara Cook is a Researcher at New AutoMotive