There is simply no credible way to address climate change without changing the way we get from here to there, meaning cars, trucks, planes and any other gas-guzzling forms of transportation. That is why it is so heartening to see electric cars, considered curios for the rich or eccentric or both not that long ago, now entering the mainstream.
A slew of recent announcements by researchers, auto companies and world leaders offer real promise. First up, a forecast by Bloomberg New Energy Finance said that electric cars would become cheaper than conventional cars without government subsidies between 2025 and 2030. At the same time, auto companies like Tesla, General Motors and Volvo are planning a slate of new models that they say will be not only more affordable but also more practical than earlier versions. And officials in such countries as France, India and Norway have set aggressive targets for putting these vehicles to use and phasing out emission-spewing gasoline and diesel cars.
Skeptics may see these announcements as wishful thinking. After all, just 1.1 percent of all cars sold globally in 2016 were electrics or plug-in hybrids. And many popular models still cost much more than comparable fossil-fuel cars.
The skeptics, however, have consistently been overly pessimistic about this technology. Electric cars face challenges, yet they have caught on much faster than was thought likely just a few years ago. There were two million of them on the world’s roads last year, up 60 percent from 2015, according to the International Energy Agency. The cost of batteries, the single most expensive component of the cars, fell by more than half between 2012 and 2016, according to the Department of Energy. Tesla has indicated that it can produce batteries for about $125 per kilowatt-hour. Researchers say the cost of electric cars will be at parity with conventional vehicles when battery prices reach $100 per kilowatt-hour, which experts say is just a few years away. Electric cars are more efficient, of course, but they also require less maintenance, which should make them cheaper to own over time.
The potential environmental benefits of electric vehicles are huge. The transportation sector accounts for 14 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and 27 percent of emissions in the United States. Moreover, countries have found it much more difficult to reduce planet-warming gases from transportation than from power plants. In America, for example, transportation emissions again regularly exceed those from the electricity sector for the first time since the late 1970s. The switch to electric cars is good for the climate because petroleum vehicles produce more greenhouse gas emissions per unit of energy than power plants fueled by natural gas, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Proponents say the growth of electric cars, when combined with the surge in renewable energy sources, like solar and wind, could lead to big reductions in emissions over time. These forces should also help reduce local air pollution in countries like China and India, which is why their leaders are getting behind these technologies in a big way. Government incentives have turned China into the biggest market for electric vehicles. And an Indian government minister says his country wants all cars sold there by 2030 to be electric. France says it wants to end sales of new diesel and gasoline cars by 2040, while Norway’s goal is 2025.
Government support could prove as crucial to the future of the technology as technical advances. If countries, states and localities encourage the spread of public charging stations, through tax breaks, other incentives or public spending, more people will take the plunge and convert. If the United States and other governments continue to spend money on research to help drive down battery costs, their economies and consumers will benefit.
Some parts of the fossil fuel industry will no doubt try to sabotage the electric car revolution. In the United States, the industry is lobbying states to eliminate subsidies for the vehicles. And many analysts expect the industry to seek similar changes at the federal level from President Trump and Republican leaders in Congress, who have already made clear that they do not see climate change as a major threat. They should know, though, that the most they can do is slow down the process. The electric car has already left the garage.