2020 will go down in history as the year of the electric car in Europe

December 21, 2020

Blissfully unaware of things to come, January 2020 started with an unprecedented drop in new car CO2 emissions across Europe and booming electric car sales. This was not due to T&E’s 2019 wish to Santa Claus, or due to drivers suddenly changing their preferences. The reason was the quiet entry into force of the long awaited 2020/21 car CO2 rules. These require carmakers to invest in clean technology, mostly electric cars, and reduce carbon pollution from their car sales to 95g/km on average. Huge investments, a large selection of plug-in models and soaring sales followed.

But just as the advent of the zero-emission car seemed finally to be within reach, the Covid-19 crisis drove Europe into lockdowns and economic uncertainty. With car dealerships closed through spring and delays in the production of new models, there were calls within the car industry to delay and relax the rules. In response, T&E assembled a coalition of cities, companies and NGOs to convince the European Commission to stay the course. After all, the number of cars sold does not impact compliance with the EU CO2 rules, only their emissions. The crisis was not an excuse to roll back climate progress, instead it was an opportunity to accelerate the green transition.

That opportunity came in the way of large public support from national governments and the EU through recovery grants and purchase subsidies. Similar purchase subsidies and scrappage schemes in the aftermath of the financial crisis in 2008 helped consumers to buy new diesel and petrol cars. But more than a decade later, politicians stood firm against the industry’s demands to subsidise all cars. This time round funding in Germany, France and – to a large extent – Spain and Italy focused on supporting sales of electric and low-emission models. The zero emissions momentum was back on track once again.

In September the Commission unveiled its plans to ramp up its 2030 climate ambitions to put itself on course for a zero-emission economy by 2050. Just as electric car sales were reaching 9% of the market, the Commission announced plans to increase the 2030 car CO2 target and flagged the idea of setting an EU-wide end date for the sales of internal combustion engine technology. To support the electric momentum, it committed to the roll-out of one million public charge points by 2025. With a dozen battery gigafactories coming to Europe, the end of the year also saw proposals to make battery supply chains ethical and more sustainable. 

Despite the pandemic, 2020 will go down in history as the year when the electric car’s momentum started in Europe. There has never been a better time to buy a plug-in car. The job is far from done, though. Half of electric sales are plug-in hybrids, a lot of these are not designed to be zero emissions – they operate on polluting engines most of the time. Charging infrastructure, especially at home and the office, can’t come fast enough. Crucially, the current electric momentum risks fizzling out as soon as 2022 unless stricter CO2 rules are put in place. 2020 saw Europe take the lead in zero emissions mobility, but the race for permanent leadership goes on.

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