Europe cannot afford to be overtaken on electric vehicles

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A new focal point for global collaboration could be clean, electric cars. [ Lekavicius / Shutterstock]

Cities, states, countries and regions must work together to share successful policy approaches to meeting climate targets, including approaches to facilitate rapid adoption of low-carbon vehicles, insist Joschka Fischer, Margo Oge and Yunshi Wang.

Joschka Fischer was vice chancellor and foreign minister of Germany between 1998 – 2005. Margo Oge is a former environmental regulator who served as the director of the U.S. government Office of Transportation and Air Quality from 1994 to 2012, and authored the book Driving the Future. Yunshi Wang is the director of the China Centre for Energy and Transportation of the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies.

Early this autumn, climate change dominated the news cycle – but for all the wrong reasons. Instead of reporting on combating this international threat, the media was tracking its horrific impacts.

They included: an unprecedented Atlantic hurricane season that caused deaths from Guyana to Ireland as well as massive forest fires that burned up to the fringes of Los Angeles and San Francisco while others blazed through parts of Portugal and Northern Spain.

In the debris, hundreds of fatalities, billions of dollars in damage – was a clear message: We can waste no more time in addressing this impending crisis. Global cooperation is paramount.

But events earlier this year – particularly the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris accord and its ongoing efforts to reverse Obama-era climate laws – make clear that cooperation at the international law level will be impeded by some. Nonetheless, many are still determined to protect the planet for future generations.

As in any transformation, there will be front-runners and there will be laggards. But a hundred years from now, all that will matter is that we moved beyond the politicization of climate change to implement coordinated policies that had a real impact on decreasing CO2 emissions and halting warming.

Those who lead in business, politics and civil society will be lauded for helping to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change.

Fortunately, there are many countries, regions, states, cities, and industries that recognise that they can both protect the environment and gain a competitive edge from transitioning to a low carbon economy.

An excellent focal point for a new era in global collaboration is clean, electric vehicles, especially given the inflection point that is just ahead and rapidly advancing technology. Costs of batteries have come down almost sevenfold since 2011 and cost parity with internal combustion powered cars is expected sometime during the 2020s. Forecasts all agree: electric vehicles are a big part of the future.

The transition to low-carbon cars has begun, fuelled by innovative states and cities, such as California and Oslo, and serviced by pioneering actors such as San Francisco-based Tesla and Munich-based Mobility House.

Globally, political actors must support innovators as they seek to overcome the cost advantage that oil producers and combustion technologies have built up during the last 100 years.

It is imperative that in the spirit of the 2015 Paris Agreement, cities, states, countries, and regions, work together to share successful policy approaches to meeting climate targets, including approaches to facilitate rapid adoption of low-carbon vehicles.

Despite the setbacks caused by the current US administration, forward-looking leaders in China, California and Europe should be working together to make this transition happen.

California remains on track towards meeting rigorous greenhouse gas reduction targets, despite regressive steps by the Trump administration. In the 1990s, California invented the Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) mandate, which requires car manufacturers to make sure a portion of the vehicles sold in California produce zero emissions.

Over nearly 30 years, the mandate has evolved and has been strengthened. Currently, nine other states (Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont) participate in California’s program allowing car companies additional flexibility in where they sell the required ZEVs.

Tesla was not born in CA because of a Silicon Valley heritage alone, but also because of the ZEV mandate.

For its part, China has recently accelerated its ambitious transition to low-carbon transportation. China is requiring that 3-5% of new car sales are ZEVs as soon as 2019, and ramp up to a target of 20% by 2025. In 2016, vehicle sales in China topped 28 million vehicles, so these percentages are significant.

China’s forward-looking policy has already made its EV and battery industries highly competitive and its electric buses dominate globally.

Most recently, on 8 November, the European Commission joined China and California with a new proposal for reducing GHG emissions from cars post-2021. The proposal sets CO2 reduction targets of 15% for 2025, and 30% for 2030. The proposal also includes a voluntary target of 15% ultra-low emissions vehicles sales by 2025, growing to 30% by 2030.

The European proposal is weaker than the California and China programs where there are penalties for not meeting the ultra-low emission target and has received strong criticism from the delegates and NGOs.

At the European member state level, Norway and the Netherlands stand out for policies that support low-carbon cars. Large cities that suffer from urban air pollution are now promoting electrification, and national governments in Britain and France have set deadlines for phasing out combustion engines.

Germany – already a front-runner in renewables deployment – is now looking closely at how it can take a leading role in the mobility transition. Not only would this help tackle climate change and urban air pollution, but it is also likely to bolster its economy.

A study last month by Cambridge Econometrics showed how a transition from imported oil to domestically produced electricity and hydrogen could increase German GDP and employment.

Many other countries that are dependent on imported oil for their mobility needs could benefit from the transition to an efficient and electrified system. This transition will not be easy. It will require major investments in charging infrastructure and grid modernisation, and the development of new value chains.

Workers in legacy industries will need to be retrained for the new economy. Those countries that make a bold commitment to meeting these challenges will not only help safeguard the planet for future generations but also secure a stake in the industries of the future.

If forward-looking actors like China, California, and the European Union – and even non-EU countries like Norway – can come together and align their policies that look to 2025 and beyond, they will help create long-term certainty which is important for investment.

In turn, their economies will be rewarded with major stakes in the industries of the future, their citizens will breathe cleaner air and forego the worst impacts of climate change. A true “win-win” worth fighting for.