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Exponential EVs

Exponential EVs

The gap between electric vehicle uptake and the infrastructure to charge them is growing. The hassle that will cause could put drivers off

The host government came to Cop with an agenda of “coal, cars, cash and trees”. The second of these was knocked back a bit on transport day when the two biggest car makers in the world – Toyota and Volkswagen – failed to sign a pledge to end emissions from cars by 2040. China, the USA and Germany didn’t sign up either. 

The International Energy Agency (IEA) says that to reach net zero by the mid-century sales of new passenger cars with internal combustion engines must be stopped by 2035. But VW and Toyota’s reticence means only 30 per cent of the global car market is covered by manufacturers who’ve made the promise. 

Why didn’t they sign? Ralf Pfitzner, vice president of sustainability at Volkswagen, told Tortoise VW didn’t sign because the declaration was unrealistic. Fredrika Klarén, head of sustainability at Polestar (which only makes EVs), said it hadn’t signed either – because the declaration wasn’t ambitious enough.

The challenge is to expand the EV market roughly 20-fold. The world’s 1.4 billion cars created three billion tonnes of CO2 emissions last year, when just over 3 million EVs were sold worldwide. The number on the roads has doubled in two years, according to Nigel Topping, the UN high level champion for climate action. But they still account for only 4.4 per cent of the global car market. 

That growth isn’t equally distributed. In Norway, electric vehicles account for 56 per cent of all new car registrations. In the UK, they account for 15.2 per cent. But in Latin America there is just one electric vehicle for every 10,000 combustion ones. 

What’s holding back electric vehicle growth?


  • Batteries. By 2040, production of lithium and nickel – both essential for lithium-ion batteries – must be 40 times higher than in 2020. Production of copper, graphite and cobalt must be 20 times higher. Most of those materials are found in developing countries (64 per cent of global cobalt supply is in the Democratic Republic of Congo), and getting to them almost always involves human rights abuses or environmental destruction. 
  • Semiconductors. The global chip shortage is slowing EV production everywhere, but especially outside China.

… and demand:

  • Range. The average EV can now drive about 200 miles on one charge, or nearly 24 times the average UK car trip. But consumers are still put off by the idea they might run out of juice. 
  • Affordability. EV prices have been coming down, but even leasing options are out of most people’s budget. A lower-range Renault Zoe can be leased for £277.88 per month over two years, but a Tesla model S costs over £1000 per month.
  • Charging. Currently, growth in the number of EVs on UK roads is outpacing the infrastructure that supports it. If the trend continues, it will make running an EV more hassle and that growth could stall. As Analisa Bevan, an expert on zero emissions infrastructure in California said in Glasgow on Wednesday, “If you don’t know where you’re going to fuel the car, you’re not going to buy it.”

Charging distribution is unequal within and between countries, too. 70 per cent of the EU’s 224,237 electric vehicle charging points are in just three countries: the Netherlands (66,665), France (45,751) and Germany (44,538). Mexico has 290, Brazil 273 and Chile 244. The UK has 26,995, 31 per cent of which are in London, and an additional 12.8 per cent in the South East of England. That would need to improve to increase uptake – even if 74 per cent of drivers charge at home

The Readout

At yesterday’s ThinkIn in partnership with Polestar, we were joined by Polestar’s head of sustainability Fredrika Klarén, Mike Hawes, chief executive at the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, Rachael Revesz, writer, editor and campaigner and Ralf Pfitzner, vice president of sustainability at Volkswagen AG to discuss how we can change the electrification roadmap. 

Key points:

  • In 2030, a ban on sales of new cars with internal combustion engines will come into play. That’s really soon – up to 46 per cent of all cars on UK roads will still be running on petrol and diesel.
  • Electric vehicles solve some problems but they do create new ones. All of the materials going into a car – any car – come with environmental and ethical problems, and we should consider reducing our reliance on cars in general.
  • Affordability remains an issue for consumers. The market is not yet at the stage where the overall cost of ownership outweighs price in the UK for consumers, but it is getting closer. 

If you missed the ThinkIn, you can read our summary and watch it back in our app and online.  

watch now

Catch up on our series of ThinkIns at The New York Times Climate Hub in Glasgow


Stormy seas
The first draft of the Cop conclusion is out. Details still need to be negotiated by 200 countries so nothing about it is final but there are nuggets of interest within the seven pages of UN jargon, including 1) stronger NDCs (nationally determined contributions to emissions cutting) to be brought to Cop next year in Cairo; and 2) a pledge to phase out coal and make cuts to fossil fuel subsidies. This is the first time coal’s been mentioned specifically in a draft communique. Whether it’s still there in the final one is a huge question (see below). There’s also 3) a “note of regret” for missing the $100 billion climate finance target, which may be the understatement of the fortnight, and 4) a soft approach to compensation for loss and damage and to finance for mitigation. Countries are urged to take action but there’s no new plan to make it happen. “We are in the same storm, but in different boats,” said Vanessa Nakate, a Ugandan activist. The call for new NDCs next year is big. Best to book that Cairo Airbnb, like, now.


Joint declaration
A big question this Cop has been what John Kerry and his Chinese counterpart have been up to behind the scenes in the absence of their leaders. They made news last night with a joint declaration promising enhanced “climate action in the 2020s” that could bring forward the date when China starts burning less coal. China’s climate envoy is of course the tall, avuncular Xie Zhenhua, who draws almost as big a crowd inside the blue zone as Greta does outside. He didn’t commit to a new pre-2030 date and won’t join Kerry’s methane-cutting project (China will run its own, he says). But he did make a fuss of a 37-paragraph ten-year action plan that instructs industry and local governments to cut emissions in at least six different ways “before 2030”. And he reminded a packed press conference that “whenever we make a commitment we keep our commitment 100 per cent”. On carbon, this is broadly true. China likes to underpromise and overdeliver, and to needle the US for doing the opposite. But would Xie commit to approving inclusion of the word “coal” in the final communiqué? Monstered by reporters outside the press conference after it had run so long that Kerry’s people were bunching in the wings to take their turn, he would not. 


Greener waters
A coalition of 19 countries has embarked on a plan to make six of the world’s busiest shipping lanes carbon-free by 2025. The “Clydebank Declaration” was announced with heavy nodding to Glasgow’s maritime past – and met with fair skepticism. Shipping accounts for 3 per cent of global emissions and decarbonising the sector will be knotty. A few industry players have started to act. Maersk has committed $30m over the last three years to carbon-cutting digital solutions and aims to float a methanol-powered tanker in 2023. But as an industry it’s not moving fast enough. By 2030, it’s expected that just 200 of the 50,000 ships in the global fleet will run on green fuels. The International Maritime Organisation is targeting a 50 per cent reduction in emissions by 2050 – rather than eliminating them, in line with Paris. Robert Courts, the UK maritime minister, acknowledged that “leaps in innovation” are required. A carbon tax might focus minds. 

engagement and activism

On your bike
Boris Johnson made sure the world could see he got the train to Glasgow yesterday – rather than his previously favoured short haul flight. But public transport and active travel were notably lower on the Cop pecking order than EVs, aviation and shipping. Fringe Cop events in Glasgow did try to address the question of alternative transport, but hit the usual roadblock of how to scale up alternative travel outside the M25. But London does show what you can do when you put money in the right places, with the right design. Barbara Stoll, director of the Clean Cities Campaign, pointed out that people are ditching their cars six times faster in the capital than the rest of the UK. And there is already “massive compliance” with London’s new ultra low emission zone, according to deputy mayor for environment and energy Shirley Rodrigues. As Johnson’s own bike scheme proves, people are prepared to get on the bike. Maybe all they need is a push. 

Do share this around, and let us know what you think of it.

Thanks for reading.

Ellen Halliday

Additional reporting by Barney Macintyre, Phoebe Davis and Giles Whittell.

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