Electric car sales set to treble, but there’s a risk of growth fizzling without tougher targets

The EU’s car CO2 standards are driving rapid growth of zero-emission vehicles sales. That is the conclusion of an analysis by T&E into the growth of electric vehicles in the first half of 2020, as Europe’s carmakers have just two more months to meet the 2021 emissions standards. But T&E is warning that the progress made so far could fizzle out within two years unless the EU revises its emissions limits from 2025 onwards.

The campaign for mandatory emissions standards that took many years to bear fruit was based on the idea that carmakers would only invest in cleaner technology when they were forced to reduce emissions. With the deadline for meeting 2020-21 standards looming, the research shows electric cars will treble their market share in Europe this year as a result of EU car CO2 targets, accounting for 10% of car sales this year and 15% next year.

Four carmaking groups – PSA (Peugeot, Citroën and others), Volvo, FCA-Tesla and BMW – are already complying with the EU’s target for average emissions of new cars, based on their sales in the first half of 2020, while Renault, Nissan, the Toyota-Mazda pool and Ford are not far away. Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, the electric vehicle market has been surging and has grown much faster than was expected when the last set of CO2 limits was agreed in 2018.

However, the next two rounds of emissions deadlines – set for 2025 and 2030 – have such weak targets that EVs’ share of sales in 2025 may only be 20%, while the 2030 requirement is for only a 37.5% reduction in emissions compared with 2021 levels. T&E says the EU needs to set 2035, at the latest, as the date for ending all sales of new oil-fuelled cars if it wants to achieve its climate goals. 

In its effort to increase the Union’s 2030 climate ambition, the European Commission has floated the idea that the 2030 target should be 50% down on 2021, compared to the 37.5% cut agreed in 2018.

Following this, a statement from the German car industry umbrella VDA suggests Germany’s carmakers may be willing to accept this. A paper from the VDA says it recognises the need to encourage climate-friendly vehicles, but its willingness to agree to a stricter 2030 emissions target is dependent on Europe’s governments committing ‘significant means’ towards establishing a dense charging network, plus other measures such as retraining for car industry workers who lose their jobs through the move towards electro mobility.

T&E’s senior director for vehicles, Julia Poliscanova said: ‘Our analysis shows that the electric car market has soared faster than anyone expected. Next year, one in every seven cars sold in Europe will be a plug-in, but this momentum is in danger of fizzling out in 2022 unless the 2025 and 2030 standards are revised as they are fast becoming outdated.

‘Accepting a higher 2030 goal is inevitable as the current target is so weak as to undermine the EU’s climate goals. And the German carmakers’ cautious acceptance of 50% down on 2021 standards is meaningless, as it is effectively business-as-usual, given that they would have to do nothing for the next nine years. Higher ambition is needed from 2025 onwards to ensure growing investment and a good supply of electric cars by European industry.’

Somewhat worryingly, while the electric car is finally entering the mainstream in Europe, sales of highly-polluting SUVs crept up to 39% in the first half of 2020, encouraged by a loophole in the EU regulation whereby selling heavy vehicles gives carmakers laxer CO2 targets. In addition, half of all the electric cars sold today are plug-in hybrids that are rarely driven in electric mode as charging times are often high and distance range low. Plug-in hybrids thus emit 2-4 times more CO2 than laboratory tests show, which has led campaigners to label them ‘fake electric vehicles’.