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The internal combustion bust

Sep 30,2020 - Last updated at Sep 30,2020

AMSTERDAM — It has been clear for years that tailpipes and exhaust fumes make people sick, and that climate change poses an existential threat. Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has confronted society with the need to tackle multiple crises at once, it is time to consider how the economy can be built back healthier.

According to a multicountry survey conducted during the lockdowns earlier this year, people want to breathe cleaner air and increasingly would support stricter rules to achieve that goal. There is strong evidence that air pollution increases COVID-19 infections. Public sentiment is shifting in favour of a future without tailpipes. From walking and bike lanes to electric scooters, cars (EVs), buses, and trucks, the portfolio of zero-emission mobility options keeps expanding.

Our long-term success at managing climate change will depend heavily on the energy and transportation strategies we adopt this decade, particularly over the next five years. De-carbonising transportation systems will require a mix of the old and the new, from traditional modes of transportation such as electric trains, trams, and trollies to new EV-sharing schemes, managed electric fleets, smart-charging systems and improved grid management.

The vehicle market is already near a tipping point. At $156 per kilowatt-hour, the average cost of EV batteries has fallen by almost 90 per cent since 2010, and is expected to reach $100/kWh as early as 2023, putting EVs in striking distance of price parity with internal combustion engine (ICE) cars. These technologies are advancing exponentially, and, as the International Energy Agency and Bloomberg New Energy Finance both noted in their recent industry outlooks, the necessary charging infrastructure is quickly improving. Major companies and investors have taken note. In late 2019, Amazon announced that it would be adding 100,000 electric delivery vans to its fleet, and Tesla’s market capitalisation surpassed that of Exxon Mobil this summer.

The political winds also are shifting in favor of zero-emissions transportation. Paris and Amsterdam have both announced forthcoming bans on petrol and diesel cars and motorcycles. And 44 jurisdictions have already proposed or enacted laws to end the future sale of ICE vehicles. France, for example, has set a phase-out deadline of 2040. Norway plans to end sales much sooner, in just five years. In Latin America, Costa Rica was the first country to adopt legislation to encourage carbon-free mobility and expand charging infrastructure. And the list goes on. National, regional, and municipal governments are all under pressure to meet climate goals and reduce air pollution.

With ICE vehicles now in terminal decline, their producers will have to adapt. As home to some of the most powerful and iconic carmakers, Germany will be an important test case. The country’s auto industry is deeply resistant to change, and yet there are already signs that it is adapting. Volkswagen, for example, has retrofitted one of its conventional-car plants to produce only EVs.

To move faster, the deployment of charging infrastructure will have to accelerate. In the meantime, policymakers should be thinking more broadly about strategies to help workers adapt to the coming change. Urbanisation and new political pressures have already led to talk of “peak car”, after which private vehicle ownership and miles travelled by car will start to decline.

Culture tends to be the biggest barrier to any broad-based transformation. The internal combustion engine has long been a feature of everyday life for billions of people. And yet, the COVID-19 crisis may have helped entrench new habits — from city biking to telecommuting — that will drive decarbonised transportation further along. The recent, massive boom in electric-bike sales is arguably here to stay.

In mapping out a post-pandemic future, it is crucial that the conversation include hitherto marginalised voices. Low-income communities, often comprising racial and ethnic minorities, tend to suffer the most from air pollution, which is closely associated with lung and heart disease, asthma  and even premature death.

In response, California recently approved the world’s first rule mandating the sale of zero-emissions trucks. At least half of all trucks sold in the state must be zero-emission by 2035, and all must be zero-emission by 2045. State regulators responded to demands from a broad coalition, including non-governmental organisations, labor groups, businesses, academics, and, critically, frontline communities. The state government estimates that the change will save truck operators $6 billion in fuel costs by 2040, while reducing emissions by 17 million metric tons — the equivalent of not burning almost 100,000 rail cars’ worth of coal.

Owing to these demand-side pressures, electric mobility will be at the heart of any green recovery. Encouragingly, rather than seeking to protect the country’s traditional car producers at all costs, Germany has allocated around 8 billion  euros ($9.13 billion) in recovery funds to support grants for EV purchases, e-mobility manufacturers, upgrades to charging facilities, and more electric-powered buses and trucks. And the French government is investing a similar amount to position the country’s auto industry as Europe’s leading EV producer.

Though the pandemic might delay the clean-transport transition in the short term, the destination is already locked in. Legislation to support further electrification is either being drafted or already on the books, and automakers’ previous decarbonisation commitments remain in place. In anticipation of the 2021 UN Climate Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, the British government has indicated that zero-carbon road transport will be one of the main topics of discussion.

Globally, sustained support to help developing countries leapfrog directly to zero-emissions transportation will be essential, with pressure again being applied on the demand side. One promising recent initiative is the “Green and Healthy Streets Declaration”, featuring a pledge by mayors of major cities around the world to end procurement of fossil-fuel buses by 2025. Similarly, the Global Environmental Facility has launched regional platforms to help Africa, Asia and Latin America go electric, recognising that mechanisms to finance the deployment of EVs, and especially zero-emission buses and trucks, is necessary to avoid locking in ICE vehicles.

Electric mobility is ready for primetime. Like solar energy, the key technologies are progressing to the point of rapid adoption and deployment. The pandemic poses extraordinary challenges, but it will not reverse the trend. In fact, it may well hasten the shift towards e-mobility, and therefore to a cleaner, healthier future.


Monica Araya, an electric mobility expert from Costa Rica, advises several initiatives and is Transport Lead for Climate Champions, an international coordinating team under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020.

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