Against all odds, the race to zero emission vehicles is on. Here’s why

The global race to zero emission vehicles reached new milestones in the last six months that were inconceivable only a year ago. As governments and companies announce plans to accelerate the shift to zero-emission mobility, Monica Araya, Climate Champions’ Campaign Lead for Road Transport asks: who will join the race next? By Monica Araya | March 16, 2021

Let’s start with the supply side. Earlier this month, Volvo Cars announced that by 2030 they will be an electric-only company. For the first time in our lifetimes, an established carmaker has announced it will “phase out any car in its global portfolio with an internal combustion engine, including hybrids.”

A few weeks earlier, General Motors said it would phase out petroleum-powered cars and trucks and sell only vehicles that have zero tailpipe emissions by 2035. Ford pledged that all sales in Europe be fully electric by 2030.

“Let me begin with the obvious: e-mobility has won the race. It is the only solution to reduce mobility emissions fast,” stated the CEO of Volkswagen at an event on March 15. This sentence would have been unthinkable a few years ago. There is also a growing sense of collaboration across the value chain: 18,000 fast-charging points will be deployed with European partners and six gigafactories will be built in Europe with production capacities of 240 GWh.

Public policies to accelerate the end of gasoline and diesel car sales are also on the rise. In November 2020, the UK made global headlines when it announced a countdown to 100% sales of zero emission vehicles: no more sales of petrol and diesel cars from 2030 and only 100% zero emission vehicles by 2035. Two months earlier, California passed an executive order requiring that by 2035, all new cars and passenger trucks sold in California be zero-emission vehicles. Cities have taken similarly transformative steps. Take Amsterdam, where I am based: In less than 10 years, the entire built-up area will be emissions-free for all forms of transport, including cars and motorbikes.

The UK made global headlines when it announced a countdown to 100% sales of zero emission vehicles

International collaboration will be needed too. The creation of the ZEV Transition Council by the UK COP26 Presidency offers a new space to explore cooperation among governments with large automotive markets.

Demand acceleration

The demand for zero emission vehicles, in various segments is reaching new heights — debunking the myth of “we see no demand for electric vehicles.” Over 100 large companies have joined EV100 committing to transition their fleets to zero emission vehicles and install EV charging for staff and customers by 2030. This represents nearly 5 million vehicles.

The World Economic Forum has recently launched the Zero Emissions Urban Fleets (ZEUF) network to accelerate the pace of adoption internationally. In 2021, the network will focus on placing European city actors on a path to achieve a 50% and 100% urban fleets electrification by 2025 and 2030, respectively.

To add momentum to demand acceleration, the Biden Administration has passed an Executive Order directing the federal government to purchase all-electric vehicles. The fleet comprises of 645,000 vehicles and so far about 3,215 units are electric. This sends a powerful signal to manufacturers, including light, medium and heavy trucks.

The race to clean trucking

The acceleration of the zero-emission freight is underway. 2020 closed with a major announcement in Europe: “all new trucks sold must be fossil free by 2040”. This came in the form of a joint statement by two improbable partners: the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (ACEA) and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), thereby sending a confident message. ACEA estimates that if Europe is to meet its CO2 targets, it will need to increase the fleets from around 2,300 today to 200,000 by 2030.

Only a few months ago, California became the world’s first jurisdiction to have a clean-trucking rule: from 2024 onwards, commercial truck manufacturers must increase their zero-emission sales to between 30-50% by 2030 and 40-75% by 2035.

In June 2020, California became the world’s first jurisdiction to have a clean-trucking rule

More initiatives are emerging including the Transport Decarbonization Alliance (TDA)’s initiative on zero-emission freight, the European Clean Trucking Alliance, WEF’s Road Freight Zero and Drive To Zero in the US.

The race to electric buses

Most developments today happen in Europe, China and California. And yet, it would be a mistake to think that the Global South is not on board. After all, that is where the most polluting fleets circulate in the streets.

The demand for electric buses is on the rise with China leading the way. And who would have predicted that Latin America, after China, would lead the uptake of electric buses? Chile and Colombia seem determined to outperform each other in a friendly competition to get the largest electric bus fleet in the region. Already 3,000 electric buses circulate in Chile (as of 2019 only 600 e-buses circulated in the US).

Colombia has reached a fleet of about 1,500 electric buses. The city of Bogota set a global precedent when it announced that it will only buy electric buses after 2022.

TransMilenio’s new electric bus fleet in Bogota (BYD)

Smart combinations of public policy and finance will be needed. ZEBRA, the Zero Emission Bus Rapid-Deployment Accelerator Partnership for Latin America co-led by C40 and the ICCT with support from P4G, is leveraging the power of matching investors, bus manufacturers and city mayors.

As the case for emissions-free buses and freight gets stronger, the engagement of new stakeholders in this space will grow. The most recent example is the Bezos Earth Fund supporting the scale up of zero-emission fleets: the World Resources Institutes’s initiative to electrify over 450,00 US school buses and the ClimateWorks Foundation program to help countries transition to zero-emission trucks and ships.

Race to Zero Breakthroughs

Launched in January, the  Race to Zero Breakthroughs sets out the near-term tipping points for more than 20 sectors of the global economy, including road transportation. Proposed by the UN High-Level Climate Champions, the Presidents of COP25 and COP26, and the UNFCCC Executive Secretary, these breakthroughs articulate what key actors must do, and by when, to deliver the sectoral changes.

This is a call for non-state actors that complements the national governments’s commitment to present upgraded nationally determined contributions under the Paris Agreement. The breakthroughs represent a “master plan” around which leading businesses, governments, and civil society can unite ahead of COP26. On road transportation the focus is on buses, heavy goods vehicles and passenger vehicles and vans.

Here is an example (vehicles and vans):

  • The breakthrough ambition (for the supply side): 20% of major automakers join the Race to Zero before COP26. Companies that do so must have a science-based target and a net-zero plan
  • The breakthrough outcome (a near-term tipping point): achieving 15% of global sales by 2025
  • The sectoral goal: reach 100% sales by 2035, or earlier.

What about walking, (e) biking and public transit?

ZEVs are part of a bigger push for sustainable mobility. The pandemic has accelerated many trends in 2020, including an exponential growth of bike lanes and electric bikes.

A broader shift is underway to secure people-friendly streets with more active mobility and better public transit. The case for improved railways is also strong. Various sustainable mobility initiatives are championing this shift. Some examples are the SLOCAT Partnership for Sustainable Low Carbon Transport, Transport Decarbonisation Alliance (TDA), C40, the Transformative Urban Mobility Initiative (TUMI) complemented by countless local initiatives and campaigns in cities around the world.

The e-bike market is expected to grow 50% by 2030 compared with 2019

A tipping point is near: join us

Reassessing how we move people and goods is good for the climate, the economy and our health. We will need to overcome barriers to change. The good news is that the last six months accelerated the pace of the ZEV transition, against all odds. In 2021, we will need to reach new milestones and bring others on board. New companies. Cities. Investors. Citizens. Governments. In the road to Glasgow this November, who will join the race?

Monica Araya is a clean mobility campaigner. She works for several initiatives, advising the COP26 ZEV Campaign and the High Level Climate Action Champions. She is a Distinguished Fellow at the ClimateWorks Foundation.




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