While tackling the policy debate around CO2 targets for cars in 2020 and 2025, the ECF’s transport team has become engaged in an even more complex and challenging debate about what happens beyond 2020. Studies commissioned by ClimateWorks and the ECF show that improvements to the internal combustion engine and weight reduction will be enough to reach the proposed standard of 95g CO2/km in 2020, while increasing hybridization will take us to 70g CO2/km by 2025.

But what are the limits of these current technologies? At what point will we need investments in energy infrastructure to support a fleet of vehicles running on alternative energy sources, such as electricity or hydrogen? Can electrification work without a much more far-reaching transport system reform? We need answers to these questions today in order to set targets for 2025 and 2030.

It is already clear that biofuels from food crops will not play a significant role in decarbonising passenger road transport. There are rising concerns that such fuels exacerbate volatility in commodity prices and increase pressure on land and water resources while not contributing significantly to CO2 reduction. With the United Nations predicting we will need to feed a global population of 8 billion in 2030, this issue will only become more pressing. Second-generation biofuels from scrap and waste could play a positive role, but their use might be restricted to aviation and trucking because of limited availability.

The answer to lowering the CO2 impact of cars surely lies in progressive efficiency improvements, including increased capture and storage of waste energy (from braking), just as is already happening today in hybrid batteries. Mass deployment of hybrids and plug-in hybrids will also help bring down the cost of battery technologies, improving the attractiveness of plug-in electric vehicles. In addition, increasing urbanisation in Europe and mounting concerns over the health impact of soot particles tip the balance further in the favour of zero-emissions vehicles.

Many Questions to Answer

But this is not enough to be certain that electrification of road transport holds the key. Many questions remain unanswered:

  • How can battery electric vehicles play more than a niche role in city commuting and car-sharing schemes?
  • How can first-mover disadvantages, especially for providers of new infrastructure, be overcome?
  • What is the likely impact on the economy and labour markets of such a fundamental overhaul of the transport system? Do we need a European industrial policy?
  • What kinds of incentives are needed to help consumers cope with the front-loaded cost of owning such advanced technology vehicles? How do we avoid costly subsidies that only end up in frustrating niche markets?
  • Which are the best bridging technologies, and how do we manage the most cost-effective transition? For example, is a strategy based on maximising public loading stations for battery electric vehicles (BEVs) the best way to overcome range anxiety? Or is testing the battery technology in plug-in hybrids or BEVs with range extenders?
  • Which roles will public transport, inter-modality, and new ownership models (e.g., car-to-go) play?

With these questions in mind, the ECF is reaching out to other major stakeholders in this transition: carmakers, auto technology providers, labour unions, motorists, consumer organisations, public transport providers, and environmental NGOs. As we work to forge a shared vision of a society beyond oil, it will be critical to ensure that the transition is effective in terms of costs and the environment alike. The next three to five years will be an important decision-making period.