Working Paper

Global climate change mitigation potential from a transition to electric vehicles

Many governments have announced climate change mitigation commitments that include national or regional commitments to reduce their carbon emissions in the 2025–2035 timeframe. These commitments tend not to have detailed sector-specific, technology-specific commitments. However, the underlying planning efforts and national actions do tend to be linked with a major transformation in the transport sector toward advanced efficiency technology with a shift to lower-carbon energy sources.

This paper investigates the potential for electric vehicles to contribute toward climate goals. The analysis is specifically designed to quantify the upper bound climate benefits from the most proactive governments meeting their long-term goals to decarbonize passenger vehicles with increased penetration of plug-in electric and hydrogen fuel cell technology. The analysis includes a cataloguing of existing national electric vehicle targets and consideration for plausible market growth for the new technology. In addition, the analysis includes a synthesis of data on future overall vehicle sales, vehicle activity, vehicle efficiency, and grid carbon emissions through 2050, with emphasis on the currently leading electric vehicle markets of China, Europe, and the United States. The analysis is focused exclusively on technology changes from increasing efficiency and increased uptake of electric vehicles in the light-duty vehicle fleet.

The paper offers two main conclusions:

  1. Governments’ electric vehicle targets amount to more than 30 million cumulative electric vehicles by 2025. In 2014, the share of new vehicles that are plug-in electric vehicles is about 0.5%–2% in most major vehicle markets, although in some national markets that proportion is higher. Allowing for near-term supply constraints, electric vehicle sales share could increase to at least 10%–15% across leading markets around 2025. This would amount to a massive deployment of electric vehicles and will require improvements in the electric vehicle supply chain, far greater auto manufacturing scale, lower cost next-generation electric vehicle models, and sustained regulation and support from governments.
  2. Electric vehicles’ potential climate benefits could increase dramatically over time, from over 125 million tons CO2 per year in 2030 to over 1.5 billion tons CO2 per year in 2050. The carbon mitigation would result from more electric vehicles entering the fleet while lower-carbon energy sources become widely available. Electric vehicle technology allows the global fleet to achieve approximately 40% lower carbon emissions than a highly efficient conventional combustion fleet (and 70% lower carbon than a business-as-usual fleet) in 2050. Matching the earlier projected electric vehicle deployment, electric vehicle climate benefits will initially be highest in European nations and in select United States regions. Over the long-term, potential electric vehicle climate benefits are greatest in China and other emerging automobile markets.