Nature Sustain

Uncertain impacts of private electric transport

Go to the profile of Aiora Zabala
Nov 10, 2017
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Road transport in Norway is currently being electrified (1) and a recent wave of major announcements revealed plans to shift to electric vehicles in other countries. This suggests that the diffusion of electric and hybrid cars is becoming a reality. However, several concerns about how the transition to electric vehicles can happen in practice, and about how this would actually influence sustainability, remain.

In early June, India announced that they would sell only electric cars by 2030 (2). Soon after, France (3) and then the UK (4) adopted similar targets to be achieved by 2040. More recently, Germany (5) and China (6) are considering to follow suit. Reducing both carbon emissions and urban air pollution motivates switching to an electrified transport system. Some stimuli came from industry and helped government’s commitment. Before the announcement by France, a major brand said it would only make electric or hybrid cars by 2019 (7), and before the announcement by China, another major brand declared they were planning for 25 new models of electric and hybrid cars to be out by 2025 (8). Though the industry does not always precede government. Some industry declarations about prospective innovation might have been partially a reaction to the large-scale emission cheating cases, such as the one about diesel engines in the US (9).

Is this all good news? Many are unsure. A big uncertainty has to do with how this technological transition will occur: what financial incentives may be needed and how should they be distributed, whether new forms of inequality will emerge, and how the old fleet of conventional cars will be managed to avoid further environmental impact of their phasing-out.

Perhaps even more important is the uncertainty around our ability to become more sustainable as a result of the widespread adoption of hybrid and all-electric technologies for private mobility. Electric cars will be green if powered cleanly and if a truly environmentally-friendly system is in place to handle batteries beyond their use life. Cleaner cars should not induce a more intensive use of private vehicles and the expansion of roads (Jevons paradox). Ultimately, the focus should not be exclusively on electrifying private transport, but more broadly on planning smarter mobility en masse.


Photo: Franckin (CC0)

Go to the profile of Aiora Zabala

Aiora Zabala

Associate Editor, Nature Sustainability

Before joining Nature Research, Aiora was lecturer at the University of Cambridge and research consultant at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), working on sustainable livelihoods and human perspectives on conservation. Aiora studied Environmental Sciences and doctoral courses in Ecological Economics at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. She holds an MSc in Environmental Policy/ Geography from the University of Oxford and a PhD from the University of Cambridge, focused on motivations and incentives for sustainable behaviour. Aiora is based in the London office.

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