Can electrical vehicles clean up Europe's transportation sector?
About a quarter of Europe's greenhouse gases (GHGs) come out of exhaust pipes in the transportation sector (European Commission, 2017). If the European Union (EU) is to fulfil their Paris climate pledge, and cut 40% of domestic emissions from the 1990 baseline by 2030, systemic changes will have to take place within the transportation sector in near future. So far, emission levels in the agriculture and industry sectors are gradually declining, however, the transportation sector proves to be far more stubborn (European Commission, 2017).
Thus, in 2016, the European Commission (EC) introduced a low-emission mobility strategy. The overarching aims therein are ensuring the EU makes a transition towards a low-carbon economy, for the sake of remaining competitive and delivering a transportation sector that is able to meet future demands (European Commission, 2017).
These objectives can be achieved with the deployment of incentives, subsidies, and setting national targets. The Netherlands, for example, has ambitiously aimed to ban fossil fuel vehicles off their roads by 2025 (Staufenberg, 2016). The EC's strategy furthermore suggests that the main tenets of reducing emissions in the transportation sector across the EU boils down to improving efficiencies, increasing the proportion of renewables in national energy mixes, and the electrification of transportation systems, which for example includes phasing-in of electrically-chargeable vehicles (EAVs) (European Commission, 2017). For inspiration, European countries are looking northwards, towards Norway (Hockenos, 2017).
There, EAVs are incentivised with perks such as privileged parking, paying no highway toll, and a high coverage of electricity charging stations in urban areas (Hockenos, 2017). These incentives have already caused many people to switch from fossil fuel vehicles to EAVs - in 2016, roughly 40% of new car registrations in Norway were battery run (Hockenos, 2017). In Europe, however, EAVs are not catching on as successfully. Within the EU member states, only about one percent of the total new car sales are represented by EAVs (European Automobile Manufacturers' Association, 2017). The alternative fuel vehicle markets, however, are anticipating an upward trajectory, with the largest markets experiencing the greatest increase in sales situated in Germany, France and Spain (European Automobile Manufacturers' Association, 2017).
EAVs are a potent solution for reducing Norway's national carbon emissions for several reasons. One is that the growing number of EAVs are run entirely on hydroelectric power (Hockenos, 2017). The share of renewables to the overall electricity production in Norway in 2015 was 98%, whilst for example in Germany and Spain, about a third of the electricity production came from renewables, and in France and Netherlands, the share was just at or below 15% (International Energy Agency, 2017). And yet, a transition to EAVs only makes a positive impact to cutting Europe's transportation emissions once cars are powered with electricity from renewable sources (Hockenos, 2017).
Additionally, Norway can afford large subsidies that promote EAVs, and thus these can compete with ‘conventional’ vehicles, due to high revenues the state receives from the oil industry (Hockenos, 2017). For example, EAV sales are not subject to the national sales tax of 25% (Hockenos, 2017). Across the EU, EAVs are not receiving as high subsidies, however, aggressive policies are in place to reduce emissions in the transportation sector by other means. For example, the EU has made it mandatory for all new cars sold in 2021 to emit 40% less than those cars being sold today (Hockenos, 2017). This could potentially spur research and development in the automobile industry, and help increase the price advantage of EAVs without high state subsidies.
The special treatments EAVs receive in Norway come at great costs, which EU countries will find difficult to bear. However, Norway too is beginning to back-peddle on privileges they are handing out since 1990 (Milne, 2015). For example, developing a charging station infrastructure, creating free-parking and not collecting toll payments for EAVs creates high costs for the state (Milne, 2015). For individuals to travel with EAVs is proving to be more costly for the Norwegian state, than if they were to travel with public transport (Milne, 2015). Thus, Norway is considering an introduction of toll charges for EAVs, and furthermore increase the toll for petrol cars (Milne, 2015).
As the example of Norway shows, hefty state interventions can encourage people to purchase EAVs. However, due to a reliance on profits from the oil industry to fund subsidies, the current situation in Norway is not likely to be sustainable. In future, phasing-in EAVs in the EU could become more feasible, with market price and performance even on a “level playing field” with petrol passenger cars by 2025 or 2030 (Milne, 2015). This is in part due to demands across EU member states are rising, as prices for batteries fall and technologies further improve (Milne, 2015). However, they will only become a carbon reducing solution once EU states generate electricity that is completely renewable. EU's emissions in the transportation sector are therefore tightly interwoven with national energy policies.
The EU has access to large funding projects, for example the European Structural and Investment Fund. This entails EUR 70 billion set aside for transformations in the transportation sector, of which EUR 39 billion are intended for facilitating transitions towards low-emission mobility, and another EUR 12 billion alone for creating “low-carbon and sustainable urban mobility” solutions (European Commision, 2017). This highlights the EU's attitude of waiting on technologies to make amends of the too high GHG emissions.
Although driving technological innovative, fossil fuel free cars may be an exciting prospect for the near future, it does little to curb the core problem, that being passenger cars remaining the prevalent mode of transport (Spurling, 2014). In order to reduce GHGs sustainably, national governments will have to encourage the renewal and expansion of the public transport systems. The crux is as thus: whilst on one hand it is important to get more electrical passenger cars onto the autobahn, on the other, national governments need also be looking into ways of getting people on bicycles, buses and trams instead.
About the author:
This piece was written by Tara Chalmers, a Sustainable Development student in her final year. She came to study in St Andrews from Frankfurt, Germany, and is a co-founder of the Sustainable Development student society. Her preferred mode of transport in cycling.
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