Almost all cars will need to be electric 'to meet UN climate targets'

Nearly every car on the road will have to be electric by 2050 to meet UN climate targets, researchers claim

  • A computer model was used to determine the required electric vehicle uptake
  • The team focused on the US as it is heavily reliant on cars with a lot of data
  • They found 90 per cent of all  US vehicles would need to be electric by 2050
  • Currently it is only 0.3 per cent with a maximum of 50 per dent likely by that date
  • Researchers say countries like the US should focus on public transport investment and more bike usage rather than pushing electric vehicles 

Almost all cars on the road will have to be electric by 2050 if the world is going to meet UN climate change targets, experts claim.

Engineers from the University of Toronto created a computer model to estimate how many electric vehicles would be required in a heavily car dependent country.

The team focused on the US, as currently only 0.3 per cent of vehicles are electric and it is a wealthy nation with a high overall rate of car ownership per capita. 

To meet UN climate targets, about 90 per cent of passenger vehicles in the US would need to be electric by 2050 – something the Canadian team say is ‘unrealistic’.

Instead, the team suggests countries focus on a massive investment in public transport and redesigning cities to allow for more trips by bicycle or foot.  

UN climate targets require member countries to take action to prevent average global temperatures from rising more than 3.6°F above pre-industrial levels by 2100. 

Engineers from the University of Toronto created a computer model to estimate how many electric vehicles would be required in a heavily car dependent country

There are more than seven million electric vehicles (EV) in operation around the world, compared with only about 20,000 a decade ago, the Toronto team said.

While this is a massive change, it won’t be ‘nearly enough to address the global climate crisis’ on its own, they explained.

Lead author Alexandre Milovanoff, a PhD student at the University of Toronto, said people think a larger-scale shift to electric vehicles will solve climate problems. 

‘I think a better way to look at it is this: EVs are necessary, but on their own, they are not sufficient,’ the study author explained. 

Published in the journal Nature Climate Change, the team found the US would need to have about 350 million electric vehicles on the road by 2050, or 90 percent. 

‘It’s true that sales are growing fast, but even the most optimistic projections suggest that by 2050, the US fleet will only be at about 50 per cent EVs,’ said Milovanoff.

They decided to run a detailed analysis of what a large-scale shift to EVs would mean in terms of emissions and related impacts.   

Depending on EVs would also create a higher demand for electricity, the researchers said, with new power plants and infrastructure needing to be built.

According to the paper, a fleet of 350 million EVs would increase annual electricity demand by 1,730 TWh, or about 41 per cent of current levels.  

The shift could also impact what’s known as the demand curve – the way that demand for electricity rises and falls at different times of day – which would make managing the national electrical grid more complex. 

Finally, there are technical challenges to do with the supply of critical materials, such as lithium, cobalt and manganese for batteries.

There are more than seven million electric vehicles (EV) in operation around the world, compared with only about 20,000 a decade ago, the Toronto team said

The team concludes that getting to 90 per cent EV ownership by 2050 is an unrealistic scenario. 

Instead, what they recommend is a mix of policies, including many designed to shift people out of personal passenger vehicles in favour of other forms of transportation.

These could include massive investment in public transit – subways, commuter trains, buses – as well as the redesign of cities to allow for more trips to be taken via active modes, such as bicycles or on foot. 

They could also include strategies such as greater adoption of telecommuting, a shift that is already underway as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Study co-author Heather MacLean said EVs do reduce emissions but they ‘don’t get us out of having to do the things we already know we need to do’. 

‘We need to rethink our behaviours, the design of our cities, and even aspects of our culture. Everybody has to take responsibility for this.’ 

The findings have been published in the journal Nature Climate Change. 

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