If You Think Electric Cars Will Save the Planet, Think Again

So you think Climate Change will be beaten one Tesla, one Chevy Volt at a time?

Time to think again.

Even if the ambitious targets of the world’s biggest economies are met, and internal combustion engines give way to electric or other zero-emission vehicles by 2040, the total impact on global carbon dioxide emissions will be minimal, according to a new study released Tuesday.

The International Energy Agency, a Paris-based think tank, said in its annual review of long-term megatrends in global energy that soaring electricity demand around the world will ensure that CO2 levels keep rising unless ambitions are ratcheted much higher.

Today, around 2 million of a total 1 billion vehicles on the planet run on electric or hybrid engines. The IEA expects that number to rise to 50 million by 2025, and to 280 million by 2040, as countries everywhere encourage their drivers to make the change to e-mobility.

That may sound like a lot, but the problem is that that number of cars on the road will have doubled by then to 2 billion. According to Laura Cozzi, the head of the IEA’s energy demand directorate, EVs will only displace 1% of expected global CO2 emissions in 2040.

Source: IEA


The problem is, other sources of energy demand are going to keep upward pressure on CO2 emissions. Increases in emissions from air and sea transport will more than offset the savings from passenger cars unless new technologies can somehow make the same kind of impact on them as Elon Musk et al. have had on the car industry. While shipping is slowly moving away from fuel oil towards substitutes such as natural gas, there’s no obvious alternative to oil in sight for commercial aviation.

Another, broader, problem is that only a part of the electricity needed to power EVs will come from clean sources, and an even bigger one is that 280 million electric cars account for only a fraction of the total rise in electricity demand that the IEA expects through 2040.

Source: IEA

Industrialization and rising living standards in the emerging world will require much bigger incremental amounts of electricity, to power industry and to provide air conditioning to offices and homes. Even the army of small, connected appliances, from smartphones to Internet routers to drones, will require twice as much electricity as EVs by 2040.

Such megatrends explain why countries such as China and India, which account for well over half of projected energy demand growth through 2040, are throwing billions of dollars at renewable energy: not so much to combat Climate Change, as to improve air quality in cities that are already choking, but which continue to attract millions of new migrants from the countryside every year.

As he embarked on his second five-year term as China’s President last week, Xi Jinping pledged to “Make the Skies Blue Again”: a riff on President Trump’s “#MAGA” mantra that nodded to China’s acute urban pollution problem. The IEA expects China to cut its average annual coal consumption by some 300 million tons a year through 2040. By contrast, China’s annual consumption of low-carbon (i.e. renewable and nuclear) energy will rise, on average, by the equivalent of 600 million tons of oil.

So while the impact on Climate Change of the electric car may not be all its visionaries claim, the alternative of a world powered by coal and oil is—particularly for the populations of China’s and India’s cities—unthinkable.

Subscribe to Well Adjusted, our newsletter full of simple strategies to work smarter and live better, from the Fortune Well team. Sign up today.