While oil demand saw its biggest ever decline in 2020 because of COVID-19 lockdowns, it rebounded quickly in 2021. Transportation is responsible for 24 percent of direct carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from fuel combustion.[1] In the United States, transport accounts for 29 percent[2] of all greenhouse gas emissions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned that even with more efficient vehicles being adopted, transport sector emissions have been growing fast, which prompted calls by the body for more aggressive and sustained mitigation options.[3] Since more than 40 percent of all transport-related carbon emissions come from passenger road vehicles,[4] deeper market penetration of especially electric vehicles is considered a priority.

In this piece, the Center on Global Energy Policy’s Dr. Tom Moerenhout discusses EV commitments made at the recent COP26 in Glasgow and whether those are sufficient to meet the massive challenge of converting the global vehicle fleet from fossil-fuel dependence.

Q. What was the key commitment around electric vehicles at COP 26?

A. The strongest commitment in the EV space consisted of a declaration by a group of stakeholders with influence over the automotive industry to accelerate the transition to zero-emission vehicles, including cars and vans (see Table 1).[5] Generally, the goal is to have all new sales of cars and vans be zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs) by 2035 in leading markets, with exceptions for signatories from emerging and developing country governments.

Table 1: Summary of EV commitments at COP26

Q. Which countries were absent, and what does that signal?

A. Countries with large automobile manufacturing industries such as the United States, China, Germany, and Japan did not yet sign on to the commitment. That, however, does not necessarily mean there is a lack of progress within these countries. In the US, three states and eight large cities did sign up to the commitment. This included California, New York, and Washington State, as well as Ann Arbor, Atlanta, Charleston, Los Angeles, New York City, San Diego, San Francisco, and Seattle.[6] Key automobile companies from these countries that are leading the EV charge and that signed on to the commitment included Ford (US), General Motors (US), BYD (China), and Mercedes-Benz (Germany).[7]

Q. What countries are currently leading in electric vehicle adoption?

A.  About 90 percent of all electric vehicles in operation are found in China, Europe, and the United States.[8] EV adoption has been rising exponentially in the last decade. Ten years ago, there were fewer than 500,000 electric vehicles on the roads across the whole world. In 2017, that number had increased to about 4 million, which grew to 6 million in 2018, 8 million in 2019, and 11 million in 2020—which saw a record year of EV sales despite the pandemic. Of the 11 million EVs, about half are on the road in China, over 3 million are in Europe, and 2 million are in the United States. [9]

Q. Are EVs cleaner than ICE vehicles even if electricity is produced by coal?

A. The level of carbon emissions savings from transferring from internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles to electric vehicles depends on the electricity mix. That said, battery electric vehicles are now so efficient that across the entire lifecycle they emit less carbon in every region in the world, even if the electricity mix relies for a large part on coal. As shown in Figure 1, total lifecycle emissions from EVs in Europe and the US are more than 60 percent less than from ICE vehicles. Because of more coal use, China’s and India’s emissions savings are lower but still positive: between 37–45 percent and 19–34 percent, respectively.[10]

Figure 1: Lifecycle GHG emissions of average medium-sized gasoline internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEV) and battery electric vehicles (BEV) by year and region

Source: George Bieker, “A Global Comparison of the Life-Cycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Combustion Engine and Electric Passenger Cars,” International Council on Clean Transportation, July 2021, https://theicct.org/sites/default/files/publications/Global-LCA-passenger-cars-jul2021_0.pdf.

Q. Are COP26 commitments sufficient for rapid decarbonization of the transport sector?

A. No. In 2020, 10 million out of approximately 11 million electric vehicles were passenger light-duty vehicles, with the remainder divided between light-commercial vehicles and electric busses.[11] The electrification of passenger vehicles is good news for decarbonization, since fuel demand for passenger vehicles accounts for the largest share of oil emissions, at about 3.3 gigatons (Gt) of carbon dioxide. However, there are fewer commercially available alternatives to decarbonize trucking, aviation, and shipping. In 2020, they accounted for the same amount of carbon dioxide emissions as passenger vehicles,[12] and while passenger transport is set to decarbonize as a result of EVs, oil demand for trucking, shipping, and aviation is expected to increase by 2030 to 4.1 Gt of CO2 emissions.

Q. Was anything agreed to at COP26 that could improve the decarbonization of trucking, shipping, and aviation?

A. Yes, albeit progress was more limited than with car and van fleets:

  • Heavy road transport: Fifteen countries and several manufacturers and fleet users agreed to work toward 100 percent zero-emission truck and bus sales by 2040.[13] This longer-term goal was substantiated with an intermediary target of 30 percent of new medium- and heavy-duty vehicles sales to be zero-emission by 2030.[14] 
  • Shipping: The United States and 13 other countries announced a zero-emissions target by 2050. They also announced they would negotiate an updated emission reduction strategy for the shipping sector in the International Maritime Organization (IMO).[15] However, in its November meeting, the IMO decided to stick to its initial timeline of revising that strategy by 2023, despite calls to do so earlier to stay in line with the Paris Agreement targets.[16] More immediately, countries decided to test green shipping lanes, which would be dedicated ocean trade routes for ships with lower greenhouse gas emissions.[17]
  • Aviation: Twenty-three countries that are responsible for about 40 percent of global aviation emissions signed a declaration announcing stronger carbon-emission-reduction efforts to stay in line with the IPCC's 1.5°C global warming limit. But betraying the steep road ahead for decreasing aviation carbon emissions, the countries only committed to supporting the adoption of an unspecified long-term emission-reduction target that should support the industry’s target of net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050.[18]