Electric vehicles: moving towards a sustainable mobility system

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Article Published 15 Sep 2016 Last modified 11 May 2021
4 min read
Photo: © Norsk elbilforening
Modern society depends on the movement of goods and people, but our current transport systems have negative impacts on human health and the environment. We spoke to Magdalena Jóźwicka, project manager of an upcoming report on electric vehicles, about the environmental advantages and challenges of using electricity as an alternative to conventional fuels for vehicles.

What types of electric vehicles are used around Europe nowadays?

There are a number of different types these days. When we talk about passenger vehicles we can distinguish between pure battery electric vehicles – powered by an electric motor only – as well as different types of plug-in hybrid cars that have both an electric motor and an internal combustion engine.

Other types of vehicles can also run on electricity. On the road we see more and more electric bicycles, vans and buses being used. As for other modes of transport we also have railway engines, water-borne ferries, ships and small boats.

How common are electric vehicles across Europe?

Each year we see more and more electric passenger cars being sold, both pure battery vehicles and plug-in hybrids. Last year, around 150 000 new electric vehicles were sold in the EU. Although sales are increasing rapidly in percentage terms, they still constitute a small fraction of overall sales, just 1.2 % in 2015. And we estimate that only around 0.15 % of vehicles on the road are electric. Or put in another way, just one out of every 700 passenger cars. One important country to mention is Norway, which leads the way in terms of electric car sales. Last year, around 34 000 new electric vehicles were sold there – corresponding to one in five of all new cars.

What is the European policy on electric vehicles?

The EU is committed to decarbonising its transport system and supporting alternatives to conventional combustion engine technologies and fuels. Electric vehicles are just one element. Some policies encourage the development of renewable fuels and electricity; while others aim at the infrastructure needed for electric vehicles such as recharging points across Europe. Specific pieces of legislation set targets for how much carbon dioxide (CO2) new vehicles can emit per kilometre. These have helped incentivise manufacture of low emitting vehicles including electric cars.

Why is it important to incorporate electric vehicles in the car fleet?

Use of fossil fuels in transport harms the local air quality and our climate. This happens through exhaust emissions of CO2 and harmful air pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and particulate matter.  Road traffic is also by far the main source of noise across Europe. Clearly, incorporating electric vehicles in the fleet can significantly reduce overall greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and air pollution, particularly if the electricity used comes from renewable sources. But even when electricity is generated from fossil fuels, the urban environment can still benefit from a switch to electric vehicles when considering reduced local air pollution and noise levels.

Why are electric vehicles more widespread in some countries than others?

Almost all countries are doing something to promote electric vehicles, but relatively few countries have successfully achieved large increases in sales. For example, ninety percent of new electric vehicles were sold in just six EU Member States in 2015 – that is Denmark, France, Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.  Norway, mentioned earlier, is a frontrunner in this field and a good example of a country that uses a complete package of incentives. One of the most effective measures seems to be purchase subsidies that make the price of electric vehicles similar to conventional cars. Other incentives include reduced cost of ownership such as annual tax reduction or free charging, free parking or use of bus lanes for electric cars.  

What challenges lie ahead?

The technology still needs to improve in several ways for consumers to embrace electromobility more broadly.  For example, the driving range needs to be longer and the charging speed quicker. Currently, it takes 20-30 minutes to charge a vehicle for a 100 km drive at the fastest charging stations. We also need a better infrastructure making public charging points as common as conventional fuelling stations and expand renewable energy generation capacity to fully take advantage of the benefits of electromobility. Electric vehicles are also more expensive than conventional vehicles.

It is also important to note that simply replacing conventional vehicles with electric ones won’t solve many of the problems we associate with transport. While it can help reduce GHG emissions, air pollution and noise, electric vehicles won’t solve other problems such as congestion or demand for new road infrastructure and parking spaces. To make transport truly sustainable, we as a society need to rethink our whole mobility system looking at innovative ways of reducing our reliance on vehicles. This can include changes such as using car sharing schemes, developing better public transport infrastructure and increasing the use of low- or zero-emission transport modes.

What does the EEA do on electric vehicles?

Looking ahead, we will publish two publications on electric vehicles this autumn: a guide summarising the current state of knowledge on electric vehicles in Europe, and a short forward-looking briefing on some of the potential impacts on the energy system and the environment associated with a hypothetical large-scale uptake of electric vehicles by 2050. 

Magdalena Jóźwicka

Magdalena Jóźwicka


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