If you listen to the media, a green automotive future has arrived and a tsunami of electric cars are outselling petrol and diesel around the world, transforming the planet and solving climate change.
We need a reality check. Battery-powered electric vehicles are fairly popular in urban China and California, as well as a few countries that subsidise their drivers heavily. But globally, fewer than 0.3 per cent of all cars are pure electric, and across Europe, BMW says customers don't want them.
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Unsurprisingly, given the price-tag, electric cars are often playthings for rich people. One US study shows the richest quarter of people receive almost all the public money spent on electric car subsidies.
Moreover, electric cars in the US are driven fewer miles on average each year than petrol-powered vehicles: 11,200km compared to 16,400km for petrol and diesel-powered vehicles. Combine this with the fact that 90 per cent of households that buy an electric car also have a conventional car that is driven further, and a clear picture emerges: most electric vehicles are a "second car" used for shorter trips like shopping and small errands — and for virtue signalling.
But aren't electric cars better for the environment? Barely. Although no CO₂ emissions come directly from driving electric vehicles, they are powered by electricity largely produced from fossil fuels in many parts of the world. More energy is also used to manufacture electric vehicles — and, in particular, their batteries — and this energy is usually reliant on fossil fuel.
Indeed, a new study from the International Energy Agency (IEA) shows that an electric car with a 400km range and charged with electricity produced at the global average will have to be driven 60,000 km just to pay off its higher CO₂ emissions in production. That means a new electric car driven the average 11,200km each year will only have paid off its carbon debt after five years.
The IEA hopes the world will reach 130 million electric cars in 10 years — a breathtaking ask, given we have spent decades reaching just over 5 million. Even if we could do that, emissions would be reduced by just 0.4 per cent of global emissions. In the words of IEA director Fatih Birol: "If you think you can save the climate with electric cars, you're completely wrong."
The IEA finds a hybrid like the Toyota Prius is as good for the climate as an electric car when measured on lifetime greenhouse gas emissions. A petrol-powered vehicle emits just nine tonnes more over its lifetime. We could have reduced a similar amount through the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a cap-and-trade system in the northeast US, for just US$51.
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Yet, governments dole out lavish support for electric cars. The IEA estimates that each electric car on the road has cost US$24,000 in subsidies, R&D and extra infrastructure investment. We could have cut almost 500 times the CO₂ if we'd spent the money cutting carbon through the RGGI cap-and-trade. Little wonder that the Dutch Court of Auditors recently ruled that the Netherlands was wasting taxpayer money on subsidies, calling them "an expensive joke".
And surprisingly, more electric cars often mean more air pollution. In China, which is the world's leading electric car market, a study reveals that because China's coal power plants are so dirty, electric cars worsen local air: in Shanghai, pollution from an additional million electric-powered vehicles would kill nearly three times as many people annually as an additional million petrol-powered cars.
Nonetheless, governments are increasingly setting deadlines for when electric cars will take over the world. Norway ambitiously plans to prohibit petrol and diesel cars in 2025. The Scandinavian nation has the world's largest electric car market share, but this is propped up with enormous government support. Rules eliminating the costs of registration and VAT can be worth up to US$70,000 for a single electric car. Moreover, electric car owners save half, or about US$1000 a year, on congestion charges in Oslo. They also get to drive in bus lanes, which is great for them but leads to increased travel times for public transport users.
But a new study for Norway shows how hard ending petrol cars will be. It finds that without Norway's overgenerous subsidies, by 2030, only 9 per cent of all car sales would be purely electric. Even maintaining all the subsidies and dramatically increasing taxes on petrol cars while setting strict emission targets would be unlikely to allow Norway to reach its goals anytime before 2050.
The misconception that electric cars are close to taking over and will solve climate change is dangerous, because it directs our attention away from the technological breakthroughs in green energy generation needed to reduce rising temperatures – and away from innovations needed to cut air pollution.
Electric cars are fun to drive and will likely be part of our future transportation solutions. But they will not be a major part of the solution to climate change or air pollution. Today, electric cars are simply expensive gadgets heavily subsidised for the wealthy to feel good while doing very little for the planet.
• Bjorn Lomborg is president of the Copenhagen Consensus, visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and visiting professor at the Copenhagen Business School.