This article is part of our special report Road transport.
The large scale roll-out of electric cars on EU roads will help fight climate change but more electricity will have to be generated to power the vehicles which, the European Environment Agency (EEA) has warned, could have its own impact on global warming.
The European Environment Agency this week said that larger numbers of electric vehicles will not be enough to make to the transition to a low-carbon economy. The EU’s transport sector still depends on oil for 94% of its energy needs.
The reductions in carbon dioxide emissions in road transport gained from the scaling-up of electric vehicles would outweigh emissions caused by the continued use of fossil fuels to generate the extra power needed to keep the cars on the road, the EEA said in a report.
But in countries where more electricity is generated through polluting fossil fuels, the environmental benefits will be lower, according to its analysis.
EU initiatives to boost renewable power generation and greater energy efficiency could lessen emissions caused by the extra electricity generation needed to run the cars.
“Electric vehicles powered by renewable energy sources can play a bridging role in the EU’s plans to move towards a greener, more sustainable transport system, and in meeting its goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80‒95% by 2050,” said Hans Bruyninckx, EEA executive director.
“However, larger numbers of electric vehicles will not be enough for the shift to a low-carbon economy. Other problems such as growing demand for transport and congestion remain and need to be addressed as well,” he added.
The shift to a low-carbon economy is vital if the EU is to meet its European and international climate commitments. World leaders in Paris last December pledged to limit global warming to less than two degrees above pre-industrial levels.
EU environment ministers meet in Brussels today (30 September) in a bid to secure bloc-wide agreement to ratify the Paris Agreement next month. The EU ratification will take the deal over the global emitter threshold needed to bring the landmark climate deal into force.
The EU’s part in this global effort is based around its 2030 target to cut greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, by at least 40%. It aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80‒95% by 2050.
Reaching both targets will only be possible if the EU’s transport sector can be decarbonised.
Transport is the only sector in the EU where greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise— industry and housing, for example, have both cut their carbon emissions levels. The European Commission promised a 60% cut in transport emissions by 2050 compared to 1990 levels.
Although sales and the use of electric vehicles are increasing, they still only make up 0.15% of Europe’s car fleet and only 1.2% of total passenger car sales in the EU.
The EEA research modelled a scenario when electric cars have an 80% share of the EU fleet in 2050. That would bring a net reduction of 255 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2050, or about 10% of the estimated total emissions of the year.
A larger number of electric cars will increase electricity consumption, raising their share from 0.03% in 2014, to 9.5% by 2050 under the 80% scenario.
The EEA said that it would be crucial for the road transport and energy sectors to work closer together to manage the additional stress on the grid, and ensure policy and investment decisions are coordinated.
The Commission’s flagship Energy Union strategy looks to better incorporate renewables into the EU power grid, while putting “energy efficiency first” in a bid to lessen dependence on imports and fight climate change.
The Commission’s low-emission mobility plan concedes that meeting electricity demand could be a challenge at peak times.
As part of Energy Union, the Commission is working on a proposal for electricity market design. That should make it easier to integrate electro-mobility into the system by incentivising charging at times of low demand.
It also looks to encourage consumers to generate their own power by, for example solar panels on their roofs. This energy could be used to power electric cars, reducing the strain on the grid.
Extensive infrastructure investment with more public car charging points and increased power capacity will be needed.
That is recognised in the European Commission’s strategy on low emissions mobility, which was published in July this year.
It calls on member states to design policy frameworks for the roll out of electric recharging points by November this year. Customer awareness campaigns are also backed in the plan.
EU leaders have agreed to boost the share of renewables and energy efficiency by 27% by 2030. After the Paris Agreement, that commitment is due to be hardwired into an EU bill.
Forthcoming energy efficiency legislation from the European Commission is expected to propose a 30% efficiency increase to reflect the ambition of the Paris Agreement.
The European Parliament is pushing for 40% and both MEPs and the Council will ultimately have to agree an identical text before the goal becomes law.
The executive has also vowed to make the EU the world number one in renewables, and is also trying to reform its carbon market to incentivise industry to cut emissions.
But huge challenges remain, not least in terms of finance both in infrastructure investment and research and innovation.
The Commission is hoping to harness the power of capital markets to incentivise sustainable investment through its Capital Markets Union strategy.
Transport is responsible for around a quarter of EU greenhouse gas emissions, making it the second biggest greenhouse gas emitting sector after energy.
Road transport alone contributes about one-fifth of the EU's total emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), the main greenhouse gas.
While emissions from other sectors are generally falling, those from transport have continued to increase until 2008 when transport emissions started to decrease on the back of oil prices, increased efficiency of passenger cars and slower growth in mobility.
European Environment Agency