Blog The Economist: Global Car Fleet Growth Requires Electrification

Blogging from Kabul, Seattle Times reporter Hal Bernton is struck by how the post-Taliban proliferation of private vehicles has boosted smog and air pollution, threatening public health. Now picture the possibilities in places such as China and India, where rapidly multiplying populations are enjoying new opportunities and car ownership is seen as an important step on the economic ladder. The small, affordable, fuel-sipping Tata Nano is a success story in India, yet The New Delhi-based Center for Science and the Environment recently warned of carbon emission risks posed by a growing percentage of bigger vehicles in the nation’s fleet, combined with a failure to set fuel economy standards. (Open Microsoft Word doc. after clicking here). The Times of India confirms the sport utility vehicle market there is heating up. In addition to the tiny Nano, Tata Motors, India’s largest auto manufacturer, makes many types of mid-sized and larger rides, including SUVs such as the Safari Dicor, the Sumo Victa, the Sumo Grande and the Xenon XT pick-up (pictured, right). Plus commercial trucks, now enjoying a sales boom in India. The “50 By 50 Global Fuel Economy Initiative” report highlights a projected tripling of the world’s light vehicle fleet by 2050, with 80 percent of that growth occurring in rapidly developing countries.
The report concludes that improving the average fuel economy of the global car fleet 50 percent by that year will “mainly involve incremental change to conventional internal combustion engines and drive systems, along with weight reduction and better aerodynamics.” Important aims to be sure, but “50 By 50” unfortunately consigns the eventual wide adoption of green vehicles such as plug-in hybrids and all-electrics to “icing on the cake” status, and largely sidesteps environmentally beneficial congestion reduction measures. In contrast, The Economist’s approach to controlling greenhouse gas emissions from a growing global fleet of light vehicles starts with a strong call for a carbon tax calibrated to vehicle type, and includes other economic incentives and electrification.

Road-pricing schemes, congestion charging and discounted town-centre parking could all provide some of the sticks and carrots needed to increase demand for cleaner cars. Finally, governments and city authorities must make it easy for electric utilities and new start-ups to install vast numbers of street-level recharging points and develop “smart” power grids to supply the growing electric fleet without requiring much extra generating capacity. Do all those things and by 2020 electric cars will have become a common sight in cities across the world. Do too little and electric cars may remain little more than a promising niche technology.

Scotland is having it’s own “a-ha” moment with respect to vehicle electrification.
According to The Herald (U.K.), a report for the government of Scotland – where transportation accounts for one-quarter of greenhouse gas emissions – urges more infrastructure for bicycling and walking, plus lower speed limits, stiffer parking charges, and road pricing. But all this would still leave Scotland far short of emission reductions required in transportation to help meet broader official targets, according to the report. Again, the role of vehicle electrification is emphasized.

Jillian Anable, senior lecturer at the Centre for Transport Research at Aberdeen University and one of the report’s authors, said transport-related emissions would be driven by technological advances, such as renewable electricity generation and the marketing of new electric vehicles.

Electricity from nuclear power is relatively abundant in France and it will be exempt from a new tax of $25 per ton of carbon emitted that is backed by President Nicolas Sarkozy and will go into effect next year. It will add to the cost of home heating and vehicle fuel bills but is to be balanced with other tax breaks, so as to be revenue neutral, overall. Later this month, France is also to a unveil cash-back program for clean car purchases. Sweden, Denmark and Finland already have carbon taxes in place.

However, without full participation of the world’s developing nations in reducing manmade greenhouse gas emissions, it won’t be possible to reach the next set of goals, to be set at an upcoming global conference in Copenhagen. The European Union has just proposed paying countries such as China, India, Brazil and Russia the equivalent of $21 billion (U.S.) to implement carbon emission control measures that would be aligned with the new world standards; but critics say the amount needs to be more than doubled. In developing nations, abundant, cheap power from coal-fired electricity plants will keep utility and manufacturing costs lower and certain types of jobs more plentiful.
Key to this equation is the scalability of green solutions in energy production, manufacturing and transportation, and bottom-up political will to preserve environmental quality in developing nations as the economy and population continue to grow. To drive broad change, emphasis on air quality and public health is at least as important as the climate change risks.


Beyond Oil: Transforming Transportation,” Cascadia Center/Microsoft conference proceedings, 2008
Jump Start To A Secure, Clean Energy Future,” Cascadia Center/Microsoft Conference proceedings, 2007.
Greening the Highway From Baja to B.C.,” Cascadia Center discussion brief, September, 2007