From what you read and hear, you might think that the end of the internal combustion is imminent.
It isn’t. And here’s why:
Despite the hype, most people don’t choose to drive electric vehicles. Even in Europe, where the social and economic pressures to reduce emissions are keen, only 0.15% of vehicles on the road are battery-powered.
And even those can’t claim to be zero emissions vehicles because not all electricity is equal when it comes to climate change. For example, if the grid is receiving power from a coal-fired facility, the emissions at source are significantly higher than if the power station were fired by natural gas. The true environmental impact of electric vehicles should also take into account full battery life, including manufacturing and recycling. When you do that, in some cases there are no greenhouse gas savings at all.
Another essential calculation is cost.
While the price of batteries is coming down, there are calls for making electric cars more affordable more quickly through greater subsidies. To cite another European example, there are already at least €10K in incentives per car in most countries1, in addition to free parking and daily exemptions from some tolls. As a result, the societal cost of greenhouse gases is at least €1,000 per tonne, compared to the current carbon price for burning coal around €4/tonne. Is this realistic?
At the going rate of subsidy, the annual cost of running Europe’s 250 million cars on batteries would be a staggering €2.5 Trillion. That is 15 times the EU budget.
There would also be a major impact on family budgets.
Customer take-up for electric vehicles is still very small because drivers do not see them as a viable option in terms of convenience or cost. While better range and more charging points will certainly help, many families simply can’t afford the higher purchase price of an electric vehicle. Instead, they will buy used conventionally-powered cars and find themselves paying higher taxes to cross-subsidize their more prosperous neighbours.
Is this socially sustainable?
Improving the internal combustion engine
Today’s primary means of getting around – vehicles powered by internal combustion engines – could be tomorrow’s as well. This is because of some dramatic improvements – some of which are already being implemented.
New models are already more efficient while at the same time meeting stringent air quality regulations.
Fuels are getting better as well. New blends, which contain sustainable renewable fuels, are reducing greenhouse gas emissions. With the right policies in place, further technologies to improve fuels are also possible.
There is also the potential of greater hybridization, combining the use of conventional fuels and electricity in the same vehicle. This can result in highly practical vehicles with lower real-life greenhouse gas emissions that avoid the downsides – extra weight, full-cycle carbon emissions and greater consumer cost – of fully-battery driven cars and trucks.
While existing regulations have succeeded in bringing real regulations, there is a danger that too much emphasis on automotive electrification could stifle future technological improves that would benefit consumers and climate alike.
Meeting the UN’s greenhouse gas targets is important. But at the same time, we need transparency and a fair comparison between all technologies to find the best ways to do this. That includes building on the potential of the internal combustion engine. It got us where we are today. It can get us where we want to be tomorrow.
To find out more, visit https://www.fuelseurope.eu/
John Cooper is Director General, FuelsEurope and Concawe. He holds a BA in Engineering from Cambridge University and chairs the Board of Industrial Advisors at Cambridge University Engineering Department.