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Are we putting too much faith into electric vehicles?

Marek Birchley Thu, 13 January 2022

This week, the BBC podcast The Climate Question investigated whether electric vehicles (EVs) are really the answer for building greener zero carbon economies in cities. The bottom line of this week’s conversation was that ‘it depends’ because the real world is a ‘messy place’. 

Proponents of the solution believe there is a huge potential in the long run for EVs to help us get to net-zero. In the short term, EVs have higher CO2 emissions associated with their production than conventional vehicles due to the sourcing and manufacturing of batteries. However, even in the long run, the show’s hosts remind us that it really depends on how much you drive and what electricity grid you are relying on, amongst other factors. 

Using the insights from the ClimateOS platform and the agent-based modeling behind Transition Elements we can help cities find an answer to that question and make sense of the mess. Here’s our take on Neal and Kate’s climate question this week: 


Firstly, the big question: Are we putting too much faith into EVs?


The first step is to understand whether for your city or municipality, shifting all the existing petrol and diesel car trips to EVs is even possible. 

Below and to the left, you see the gray bar of 1,000 kt CO2e. This shows the total emissions from Private Transport that need to be reduced in a particular city. On the same axis, you can see the potential emissions reductions of the different, greener options that you have in your city in order to continue making this essential economic activity possible. There, you can see that the green bar height of EVs has only the potential to decrease total emissions by 650 kt CO2e. 

The graph on the right hand side shows the trajectory of carbon abatement, which at the moment is the Business As Usual case (BAU). 




EVs alone rarely represent 100% decarbonisation potential. They are only the answer if other prerequisites are in place, such as a decarbonised electricity grid. Many cities must work with regional institutions to green their energy sources to unlock the abatement potential. In the example below, you can see the striped gray bar, representing new emissions created by charging EVs with fossil fuel generated electricity. This impacts the ability to create the emissions reductions necessary to reach net zero for private transport.




Cities need to diversify how they cater to transportation. As Kate and Neal put it, the climate transition is more like a “decathlon, than a marathon”. Cities need to be good at operating multiple shifts together, as the right combination will add up. 

For private transport, that means understanding and shifting the different types of trips made in diesel and petrol cars to public transit, walking and cycling, light rail as well as creating a culture that allows for the reduction of trips, such as working from home and taking e-meetings. Using a combination of factors is the most realistic and effective way to find a pathway to net zero. 

Below you can see that the combination of shifts will create the best emissions abatement pathway for the city. This shows that we are likely putting too much faith in EVs and that while they entirely have their place in a city’s decarbonization strategy, they are only one of multiple shifts that a city must pay attention to.


3. Decathlon


Does your city need help answering tough climate questions? 

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The above example is an example municipality, based on UK data and a population of 300k.