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  • Cars are going electric, but should we get plugged in?

    We just published a new paper on how electric cars are faring these days in Europe, and since I get asked a lot what we think about them, let me try to summarise my thoughts here.

    Let me first say that, whether you like it or not, electric transport or e-mobility will be very much needed if we want to decarbonise our society. Recent years have shown us how hard it is to ‘decarbonise hydrocarbons’ – to move to lower-carbon fuels for combustion engines.
    Oil is simply bad – unconventional oil is worse. For biofuels I have seen no credible scenarios for sustainable use on a vast scale. For gas the same applies; the fossil variety is hardly better than oil and with the current geopolitical situation quite a strange bet, the ‘sustainable bio’ variety is small scale.
    Hydrogen suffers from poor overall efficiency and a lifecycle that is either dirty (when made from gas) or expensive (when made from clean electricity). That almost leaves electricity as the only longer-term energy option. The good news is that while electricity is often quite dirty now, it is quickly becoming cleaner. 
    Last year around 70% of all new capacity in power generation was renewable, clean, and from our very own sun and wind. Take that, oil industry!
    Note that I said e-mobility, not electric cars. Yes, we need to think beyond just electric cars and include electric rail, e-bikes, electric quadricycles, everything. Currently, for every electric car sold in Europe, 60 e-bikes are sold. This shows where the real change is. Why is an e-bike subsidy nowhere to be found?
    Electric cars obviously do not do much good for the environment when they are bought – at colossal expense – as second cars, used instead of bikes or public transport, and only used sparingly. Then they are a waste of space and resources. If they are used as shared vehicles or in fleets, the cost-benefit ratio is much better. Governments should consider sponsoring such initiatives, even when that means smaller subsidies for individual vehicles.
    What I personally like about electric cars is that they really challenge carmakers to rethink their vehicles to make them much lighter and more energy efficient because then their range is so much better. I also like it that they break down the huge barriers to entry in the car industry – Tesla comes to mind – introducing a much-needed shakeup of the petrolheads. And I like it that they lend themselves very well to vehicle sharing – mobility of the future. 
    Our report shows that we need a bit of patience – the learning curve on e-mobility is still steep; every new model is much better than the previous one. And we need to think of clever ways to accelerate investment: tough CO2 standards for cars for 2025/2030; smart, California-style incentives for innovators, on the vehicles side as well as the fuels side; and, crucially, an all-encompassing strategy to accelerate all forms of e-mobility across Europe. Europe currently does not have one. But it should.