State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Will Electric Vehicles Take Over the World?

Electric vehicles charging at San Francisco City Hall
Electric vehicles charging at San Francisco City Hall. Photo: Felix Kramer

Editor’s note: this blog was updated 5/2/18.

As more people and goods move around the planet, our cars, planes, trains, and ships are having a growing impact on the climate. Transportation now generates almost a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, and in 2016, transportation (including ships, aircraft and railroads) in the U.S. produced more carbon dioxide emissions than any other sector. Shifting from vehicles that burn fossil fuels to those that run on electricity will play a key role in curtailing climate change—in order for countries to meet the carbon-cutting targets they set for the Paris Climate Agreement, 100 million electric vehicles (EVs) must be on the road by 2030. However, in 2015, there were only 1.26 million.

Fighting Climate Change and Saving Money

Electric vehicles run on battery power, charged by electricity at home or at a charging station.

While they’re in motion, EVs are clean—they emit no carbon dioxide or any other pollutant. The electricity to power them does produce global warming emissions, however, so how clean they are ultimately depends on how the electricity powering them is generated. According to a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, EVs running on electricity from renewable power like wind and solar produce virtually no global warming emissions. But even EVs powered by electricity generated mainly from coal produce fewer global warming emissions than a fossil fuel-powered car averaging 27 miles per gallon (mpg). A gasoline-powered car would need to get 54 mpg to have as few global warming emissions as an EV powered by electricity from natural gas; 500 mpg to match a solar-powered EV; 3,900 mpg for a wind-powered EV; or 7,600 mpg to have as little as an EV powered by geothermally generated electricity.

Currently, the majority of U.S. EV sales are in California, which produces most of its electricity from natural gas, plus 25 percent from renewables and almost none from coal. So most electric vehicles in the U.S. today run on natural gas or renewable energy. Moreover, 28 to 42 percent of EV drivers in the U.S. and Europe have solar power in their homes.

Although upfront costs for EVs are higher than for comparable fossil fuel cars, a 2017 Union of Concerned Scientists report determined that EVs can be cheaper to maintain because they do not require oil changes or regular maintenance.

In addition, electric vehicles can save $750 to $1,200 a year on fueling compared to a fossil fuel vehicle averaging 27 miles per gallon with gas costing $3.50 per gallon. While driving electric is cheaper than driving with gas, the actual amount of savings depends on local utility rates and rate plans, such as those that offer cheaper rates at night.

The World is Going EV

Plug-in electric vehicle sales are increasing in the U.S., reaching almost 200,000 in 2017—a 25 percent increase over 2016.

Charging EVs in Nice, France
Photo: Mark

Many countries are now banning new vehicles that run on fossil fuels like gasoline, diesel or liquefied petroleum gas. Germany, India, Ireland, Israel, and the Netherlands have announced plans to ban fossil fuel cars starting in 2030; Britain, France, Taiwan and California will ban them in 2040; and Norway in 2025. Paris, Rome, Madrid, Athens and Mexico City will ban diesel vehicles in 2025.

China, the world’s largest car market, will no longer approve any new fossil fuel car projects. A policy that goes into effect in 2019 requires automakers that manufacture or import over 30,000 vehicles a year to earn fuel-consumption credits and achieve quotas for producing zero and low-emission vehicles. China is also working on its plan to ban fossil-fuel vehicles and will soon phase them out on the island of Hainan in a test run.

Electric police vehicle in Beijing
Photo: Gabriel Hund-Goschel

Beijing wants at least 20 percent of China’s vehicle production to be electric and hybrid by 2025.

American and European automakers know they have to sell cars in China in order to thrive, so Ford, Daimler and General Motors (GM) are all going electric. Ford will have 16 new EVs by 2022 and Volvo, which is electrifying its whole fleet, has just announced that it will produce its first commercial electric truck. GM, which in 2016 sold more cars in China than in the U.S., intends to go all-electric in the future as well—by 2023, it will produce 20 fully electric models. GM’s president, Dan Ammann, was quoted as saying, “We do see China being, in the near and medium term at least, by far the largest market for electric vehicles in the world. But we believe ultimately that the whole world will go that direction.”

About U.S. Fuel Efficiency Standards

Meanwhile in the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is planning to roll back fuel efficiency standards for cars made in 2022 to 2025. This move, couched as an easing of regulations on automakers to make vehicles more affordable, could benefit the dirtiest carmakers and penalize the cleanest ones by weakening the incentives to manufacture electric vehicles.

After the 2008 financial crash, GM and Chrysler, who had been producing large gas-guzzling cars when gas prices suddenly rose, were facing bankruptcy. They received an $80 billion bailout from the federal government (and taxpayers).

Photo: MR38

The Obama Administration then set new fuel efficiency standards to make U.S. car companies more competitive with Japanese and German carmakers—they would have to achieve an average economy of 54.5 miles per gallon across their fleets by 2025. However, since the automakers had additional ways to reach the target such as reducing coolant leaks or buying efficiency credits, vehicles would only need to get 36 miles per gallon in actual fuel efficiency by 2025. That’s just 11.3 miles per gallon more than was required in 2016. And according to the EPA under Obama, only two percent of the fleets would need to be electric vehicles to meet the 2025 targets.

The EPA projected that, if carried out, the standards could reduce oil consumption by 12 billion barrels and eliminate about six billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions over the lifetime of the more fuel efficient cars.

EPA’s midterm evaluation of the standards in July 2016 found that carmakers were already “over-complying” and that there was “positive consumer response,” so the targets were finalized in January 2017.

During this evaluation, however, GM, Ford and Chrysler asked the incoming Trump administration for more flexibility in the standards for how credits were evaluated and how pollution from generating electricity in EVs was accounted for. In response, the EPA under Scott Pruitt went further than the carmakers had expected or even wanted by announcing that they would weaken the new standards. In fact, the executive chairman and CEO of Ford wrote in a blog, “We support increasing clean car standards through 2025 and are not asking for a rollback.” An alliance of leading automotive suppliers and emission control company organizations also voiced its support for long-term emissions and fuel economy standards.

Los Angeles smog in 1973
Photo: Gene Daniels

California is pushing back. Because the state had terrible smog conditions in the past, the Clean Air Act allowed California to set stricter vehicle emissions standards than the EPA and let other states follow those standards.

On May 1, California and 16 other states plus the District of Columbia sued the Trump Administration about the proposed weakening of fuel economy standards. The New York Times said the lawsuit “called the Environmental Protection Agency’s effort to weaken auto emissions rules unlawful and accused the agency of failing to follow its own regulations, and of violating the Clean Air Act.”

In any case, Steve Cohen, executive director of the Earth Institute, is not worried that the proposed rollback will harm the U.S. car industry. “It’s going to take a long time,” he said. “Promulgating a regulation takes a long time from start to finish and removing a regulation takes a long time from start to finish. Both things are hard to do.”

The EPA will work with the Department of Transportation to propose new standards for 2022 to 2025 cars, no doubt weakening the current standards. The revised standards will then be open to public comment and will probably face legal battles. Meanwhile, the Obama administration’s standards stand, and U.S. automakers, who usually plan years in advance, face uncertainty.

EVs vs. Fossil Fuel Vehicles

In recent years, low oil prices have encouraged Americans to drive more miles and buy more SUVs and pickup trucks, which now make up 60 percent of the U.S. market. While consumers may respond to short-term cheap fuel prices by buying fossil-fuel cars, EVs have long-term benefits and are improving all the time.

To find out how electric vehicles and fossil fuel cars stack up, the management consultancy Arthur D. Little conducted a life cycle analysis of lithium-ion battery EVs and internal combustion engine vehicles that run on fossil fuels. It looked at all stages of their lives from research and development, to sourcing of raw materials and manufacturing, through ownership and disposal. The study found that, mile for mile, EVs cost less to drive than gasoline-powered cars and cost less to maintain. The total cost of ownership for EVs, however, is higher because they are more expensive to produce, mainly due to the cost of manufacturing their batteries.

A Union of Concerned Scientists life cycle analysis found that EVs require more minerals and energy to build than fossil fuel cars, and thus produce more global warming emissions. But because they do not burn gasoline, EVs offset these higher emissions relatively quickly, and emit less throughout their whole lives. Over their lifetimes, EVs produce half as much global warming emissions as comparable gasoline-powered cars.

The Little report determined, however, that EVs result in three times more toxicity, mainly due to the heavy metals, such as cobalt, used in manufacturing the batteries. These metals can shorten the lives of those working in and around polluting mines in the Congo and China, for example.

Cohen maintains that the situation will improve. “It all depends on how you manufacture and how you dispose,” he said. “You can manufacture a battery and not have environmental effects. It depends on how well it’s done and how careful you are…The whole manufacturing process, because of the field of industrial ecology [the study of optimizing the use of energy and materials in systems], is paying more attention to environmental impacts.”

Looking ahead to 2025, the Little analysis predicted that while the difference in the total cost of ownership will narrow, gasoline powered cars will still be cheaper. By then, EVs will produce even fewer global warming emissions than gas-powered cars, but the amount of human toxicity of EVs may increase due to larger batteries.

The Future of EVs

“When the EV is more reliable, cheaper and better than the internal combustion engine, it will drive that engine from the marketplace,” said Cohen.

Under the Tesla Model S hood
Photo: Can Pac Swire

Electric vehicles are already cheaper to run and maintain since they have fewer moving parts. The next big challenges to tackle are range anxiety and charging time. EVs can go between 50 and 200 miles on one battery charge, depending on the make of the car. The Mercedes-Benz 2018 Smart Fortwo’s range is 58 miles. Nissan Leaf’s range is 151 miles, while the Tesla Model S’s is 315 miles. Cohen thinks that when EVs get to 700 miles per charge—which may not take long, considering EV ranges have already doubled within the past three or four years—it will be a game-changer.

Battery makers are working to improve the chemistry of lithium batteries so they don’t require as much toxic material, and to enhance energy density to make batteries lighter. These developments will lessen the environmental impacts of EVs and improve their efficiency. And as battery prices continue to fall (battery pack prices fell 74 percent between 2010 and 2016), consumers will get more range for their money and EV prices will come down. PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts that “between 2025 and 2030, the cost of battery EVs will fall below the cost of combustion engines.”

Tesla charging station with rooftop solar
Photo: Jusdafax

The time it takes to charge an EV today can range from 30 minutes to 12 hours, depending on the capacity of the battery and the speed of the charging station. Multiple companies are already working on next-generation fast chargers, which will be able to recharge EVs with a 200 to 300 mile range within 15 minutes. Currently there are about 17,600 charging stations in the U.S., but many companies are rapidly scaling up their networks of charging stations.

Wireless parking charge
Photo: Njo

A number of charging innovations are in the works, too, such as wireless charging pads in parking lots, wireless charging under roadways and solar roofs.

And the more renewable energy that’s available on the grid, the cleaner EVs will get. Solar and wind, which now generate about 10 percent of power in the U.S., continue to get cheaper and more efficient. In addition, as batteries improve, wind and solar power are becoming more reliable.

To promote the growth of electric vehicles, the right policies are also key. Tax credits for purchasing EVs must be continued. Fuel efficiency standards are necessary to spur automakers to produce clean and efficient cars. Utilities should provide special EV charging rates that are lower than household electricity rates and/or lower rates during off-peak times. Investments in research and development must be encouraged to produce the technological innovations to continually improve EVs. And investment in charging station infrastructure will help provide ubiquitous, reliable, and cheap public charging. A carbon tax or cap and trade program would also speed the adoption of EVs.

Research organization Bloomberg New Energy Finance projects that by 2040, there will be 530 million EVs on the road, accounting for 54 percent of total global vehicle sales and saving the equivalent of 8 million barrels of oil a day.

The EV is revolution is coming. Said Cohen, “It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when.”

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Marcus Rönningås
Marcus Rönningås
6 years ago

We got our first EV (Hyundai Ioniq) last summer and we can’t wait to change our XC90 to an EV SUV as soon as there are any viable alternatives.

One of the biggest benefit regarding EV’s is however it’s simplicity; we have a fully “fueled” car every morning and never have to worry about going to fuel it up.

Range anxiety is gone as soon as you’ve driven the car for a while.

Renee Cho
Renee Cho
6 years ago

On May 1, California and 16 other states and the District of Columbia sued the Trump Administration about the EPA’s proposed weakening of fuel economy standards. The New York Times said, it “called the Environmental Protection Agency’s effort to weaken auto emissions rules unlawful and accused the agency of failing to follow its own regulations, and of violating the Clean Air Act.”

6 years ago

I drive a first generation Nissan Leaf, and would never dream of going back to a petrol car! EVs are so much more comfortable, quiet, smooth… Love it!! No range anxiety here, as I use it as a day to day city car. You’ll be exactly the same after you’ve driven an EV, especially one of the newer models.

Louie Sonugan
5 years ago

Yes but no in some areas especially in Asia. There are lots of natural disaster and we can’t prevent it and there would be a car damage due to flood. Perhaps it would cost you more money to fix it.

James Bloxham
James Bloxham
5 years ago

@Louie Sonugan Natural disasters, if extreme enough, can damage any vehicle, irrespective of how it’s powered. Are EVs more prone to damage? “Perhaps it would cost you more money to fix it?” That’s clearly an assumption. Of course, it depends on the damage that has been caused, but, overall, not a very well structured argument.

5 years ago

Sadly, no. At least not for know. First – because we do not have the infrastructure. Second – the lack of trust in the technology ( let’s be honest – most of us fear of being left stranded in the middle of nowhere, cuz the charging stations are not much).

5 years ago

Yeah. But i see that happen in the distant future – maybe after 15-20 years. I do not think we are prepared both technically and mentally for them. Our infrastructure needs a lot of improvements and the same is valid for the ev technology – longer range, fast charge, long battery life.

Alan Baker
Alan Baker
5 years ago

What happens to the grid when everyone comes home and plugs in at 6:pm.

Joe Swanson
Joe Swanson
5 years ago

There needs to be millions and millions of charging stations across Europe and US before ev cars even start to take over. Any major city has millions and millions of cars with no garage to charge from. So this is a simple math equation regardless how much some people love the ev car. No charging stations means just garbage talk in regards to ev cars. Math again folks.

Tony Brandstone
Tony Brandstone
5 years ago

As you know this month EV sales in Norway overtook sale of BEV, so my answer is “yes”

Pretty awesome EV market overview

Hirsch Vivat
Reply to  Tony Brandstone
3 years ago

Norway is 5.5 millions, lacky to get strong wind from artic. Norway sell 11 mln barrels oil per day. 1500 medium ships are fueled by oil, and 17 cruise ships are oil driven. Planet population is about 8 bln people. So the Norway is 5.5/8000=0.00068 very little to use as example

Susan Louis
Susan Louis
4 years ago

I am all in favor of any technology that reduces pollution / global warming however tax credits for a $50-$120k car is subsidizing the rich . It is simply not fair for The person working at Dunkin’ Donuts who can’t afford these cars to subsidize these cars. (I would give same argument for many tax credits / government programs !!!) I have a $20,000 Toyota Prius C.
If you want to help pay on you own !!!!

4 years ago
Electric Cars vs Internal Combustion Cars and Type of Mounting system . Very good video

Hirsch Vivat
3 years ago


l will start with electrical cars (EV). So far it is 2.6 % around the world are electrical cars.
Energy to power EV comes from an Electrical Grid. So far most world energy is converted from fossil fuel, nuclear and all kind of renewable sources. Next I will find the Total Efficiency of EV and conventional vehicles using the ‘’Apple to Apple approach’’. The Total Efficiency of EV combined of the two factors: EV car efficiency plus the efficiency of the Electrical Greed.
Total efficiency for gasoline-engine car is one factor: “tank – to -wheels” .
On average, gasoline is producing 124000 BTU per gallon with, when #4 fuel oil is producing 141000 BTU per gallon A Coefficient of 141000/124000 = 1.137 will be added in EV efficiency calculation.. The cost of those two products are taken as equivalent as both of them are a by-product of refinery process. See my TAKE below).
1) Total efficiency of all electrical power plants in the world is lower than 40%, (some 30% only.) 2) Efficiency loss of transporting electricity thru’ the electrical grid (power lines, transformers) are 7% 0r 0.93. 3) Efficiency loss of electrical car battery is 10% loss when is charged. So charging efficiency is 0.9;
4) Efficiency; loss of an electrical car battery when discharged is 10% or discharging efficiency is 0.9;
5) Efficiency; loss of an electrical battery when temperature fall below -10 c is 0.5
For calculation we will take 0.85 (not everywhere and not all the time is winter.)
6) Efficiency; loss of 15% of electrical power for heating up the car or cooling off (air-condition/heater) coefficient is 0.85
7) Mechanical efficiency: transmission (not so complicated as at mechanical car) and all other moving parts including the wheels are only 0.90;
8) Finally efficiency of a EV electrical motor is 0.93
9) Battery efficiency for 4-5 years old battery is 0.75 (Battery life is 8-10 years). In all published work EV testing efficiency is provided with a new batter (4 years old battery with 100000 km should be used)
10) Charging convertor from AC to DC has 0.95% efficiency.
0.40 x 1.137 x 0.93 x 0.9 x 0.9 x 0.85 x 0.85 x 0. 90 x 0.93 x 0.75 x 0.95= 0.148 in most of the studies the EV efficiency is calculated for the range between idle to 100 km/h when only in very few studies you may find that additional energy of 25% is required for the speed till 120-140 km/hour vs gasoline powered cars. That means that efficiency on higher speed will drop even lower than calculated bellow.
Conclusion: based on the world fossil fuels usage for both cars the efficiency is as calculated: EV = 0.148; Gasoline Car = O.170. It looks that conventicle car is a bit more efficient device than EV. However those results are strictly theoretical. Disadvantages of EV car are great, starting from the cost, batteries and etc. Ref 2. One of the most important PROS of EV is reduction of the LOCAL pollution which is rather exchanged and added to the Electrical Power Plant pollution. The final task is reduction of the “green gasses” emitted to the Planet. I DO NOT UNDERSTAND WHY TRANSPORTATION SECTOR BECOME SO DESCRIMINATED AS A CONTRIBUTER OF THE GREEEN GAS EMISSION TO THE PLANET, WHEN IT TAKES A PLACE OF ONLY 14% OF WORLD GREEN GASES EMISSION , WHEN ALL OTHER INDUSSTRIES ARE CONTRIBUTING 86%.
The world generation of electricity is combined of 27% of renewable and 10% of the nuclear energy the rest is fossil renewable fuel from ‘’other sources’’. Total of 37 % of non-fossil fuel generation are achieved today, sound very encouraging , but only 11% are renewable from ‘’other sources’’, 16% hydro which was build up 10-70 years ago and 10% are nuclear ,not very popular and not tolerable to use. It took more than 20 years to get to 11% of the renewable from “other resources” and only for few countries. Remaining 63% is generated by fossil fuel which should be reverted to renewable in 20 -30 years from now. All Electrical Grids would head to be rebuilt and also expended to generate additional electricity to operate EVs. It is not for me to criticise that imaginary fantasy project. I only can conclude that Hybrid car for next 20 years would be a better choice. Hybrid car is more reliable with lesser problems. Granting rebates for the new EV costumers is just done for a political reason. Hybrid cars should be ‘’granted’’ as the first choice.
EV batteries consist of 7000 round small micro batteries. EV battery is very expensive to produce and dispose. Battery last about 8-10 years or 160000 km, loss of the efficiency is 0.6 on the end of battery
(See ref #2) Cost of the EV battery is 12000 CAD. Consumers will be divided in two group categories: one which will be able to buy new expensive EV and another to buy a used EV with a replaced auto market battery. The life of the car body will have to withstand 20 years in good condition. To understand that clearly an equivalent approach for today would be that every car owner would be obligated to change the entire Power Train after 8-9 years of owning the car. That revolutionary approach would not be appreciated.

Hirsch Vivat P.Eng. M.Sc. major in auto-transport.
My TAKE for the future is: The larger part of transportation sector will be taken by HYBRID vehicles, next it will be shared by EV vehicles. The rest will be left for vehicles with high efficient gas-powered engines as well. However in some countries the last approach could be reversed. Also gasoline distribution is already in existents, when new construction of electrical charging stations will be a very high expense, it will take to upgrade high voltage power lines and add or replace transforming stations with new one.
——-Crude Oil Production is one of the most important necessities. As a result, oil refinery is producing products used to produce 6000 items. Starting from asphalt, bitumen, jet engine fuel, plastic, drugs and so many others that it is not possible to list them; only 40% as a by-product is gasoline. It should be used up. One of very feasible usage would be fuel for Hybrid cars and for high gas efficient vehicles.
At the present time about 10% of population from 7.8 billion people on the planet EARTH are inhabitancies of the countries where the power plants efficiency are higher and renewable energy is added to the energy generation. It could be a good beginning to start developing EV. But keeping consumers in the dark and bombarding them with the false information is wrong.

Reference #1 file:///C:/Users/hviva/Downloads/Comparing_Apples_to_Apples_Well-to-Wheel_Analysis_%20(1).pdf

Reference # 2 What can 6,000 electric vehicles tell us about EV battery health?

Reply to  Hirsch Vivat
2 years ago

Very opinionated, you should read more.

Reply to  Huhu
5 months ago

I read EPA tests. Very important part is missing, there are no testing done on 6 years old EV with a miliage of 100000 mi, under the same conditions are it is done with a brand new EV. The average age of the vehicle in US is 6 years and it last 12 years. At the same tiime is nowhere mentioned in EPA that CO2 emission in US is very high due the Power Plant efficiency of only 36% and operated by 79% fuel combined by gas,oil and coil. With a such high number of US polution the EV is not capable to reduce polution AT ALL. The main task of EV is to use that vehicle on cleen energy.When the time will come the results of EPA could have some value, but not now.

Reply to  Huhu
5 months ago

This is a continuation of my respond bellow. I also found that EPA does not add losses 10% to charge the battery, 5% for a ac/dc inverter loss. 7% loss of the Grid (wires, transformers).
the 6 year battery should be previosly charged 50/50 by slow/fast methods equally.

Richard McIver
Reply to  Hirsch Vivat
1 year ago

New batteries using aluminum and sulfur with salt membrane is very cheap (abundant) materials from MIT that expects fast charge times, no
fires, many cycles, perhaps 900 miles on a charge, and will make the
battery costs a revolutionary low like led lights did for electric lights.

Hirsch vivat
Hirsch vivat
Reply to  Richard McIver
5 months ago

I do not have any opinion about EV. My study is stricly engineering and related to “energy efficiency” only. In conclussion I wrote the outcome based on calculations.I did not specified the polution emmied for the lithium battery and did not include them in calculations, because I can not forsee what kind of battery will be used in the future. As you mantioned a new “aluminum” battery will change a lot, it is only great news for me.But the most imortant task it is not EV and how good is that vehicle. The bigest problem is the electrical grid. In United States electricity generated by burning 79% of fossil fuel, When in France only 4% with 70% nuclear, in Canada is 59% fossil. Electrical car is clean as the power supply! Any EV today in USA will produce about 79% polution not thru exhast ,but thru Power Plant chimney. Hybrid will be a better choice for now.