- As the fourth largest source of carbon emissions, global transport must decarbonize.
- Near-term reductions are most feasible in the light-duty vehicle sector.
- Supply-side policies could be more effective in encouraging hydrocarbon-rich states to participate.
Hydrocarbon fuels account for more than 80% of commercially traded energy consumption. The abundance, convenience and affordability of fossil fuels have generated economic growth and made life better for billions of people. But the emissions and climate challenges associated with combustion are significant, and policy-makers around the world must limit the rise in global temperatures caused by greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Global transport is the fourth largest source of GHGs, producing about 23% of global energy-related CO2 emissions. About 73% of transport emissions come from road vehicles including cars and trucks, 22% from planes and ships, and 1% from trains. GHG emissions reduction in transport is expected to significantly contribute to meeting the Paris Agreement goals.
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GHG emission reduction from long-range heavy-duty transportation (trucks, trains, ships, planes) will likely require substantial R&D breakthroughs and policy interventions, because green technologies for these vehicle segments are not yet commercial. The majority of near-term GHG emission reductions in the transport sector are projected to come from electrification of light-duty vehicles (LDVs) as well as buses, where such technology is already commercial.
Governments globally have adopted various policies to support LDV electrification. Tax and other incentives to reduce the upfront price of electric cars are among the most commonly used policy levers. Using such a model, Norway, a hydrocarbon-rich economy, achieved the highest penetration of EVs in Europe. However, such measures can be expensive. The cost of reducing tailpipe CO2 through subsidies to EV alternatives can be as high as $1,000 per ton, significantly higher than other approaches to reducing carbon.
Demand-side measures can incentivize consumers, but also act to spur the automotive industry by helping the automakers recover their R&D investments on EVs and by allowing them to charge relatively higher prices for EVs. These incentives are part of governmental energy and environment policy, and industrial policies, designed to support local innovation and manufacturing.
Incentivizing the fossil fuel hubs
Demand-side policies are difficult to justify in countries without a local EV manufacturing industry, as is currently the case with countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Additionally, market barriers to EVs in the MENA region and in Eurasia are exacerbated by the policies that tend to favour hydrocarbon fuels use, reducing consumer incentives to adopt electric vehicles by lowering their operational cost advantage. Though government support for fossil fuels is phasing out over time in most MENA countries, economies in Eurasia have been taking very slow steps in this area.
An alternative approach for the regions with an abundance of fossil fuels, especially if the goal is long-term GHG emissions reduction that is also highly cost-effective, is to emphasize technology-neutral supply-side policies, such as fuel economy standards. Such policies are based on a combination of more stringent technology-neutral performance standards with credit-based mechanisms to incentivize the uptake of lower emission vehicles. Such technology-neutral standards offer the possibility of utilizing high-efficiency gasoline-electric hybrids or high-compression internal combustion engine vehicles as affordable interim solutions. In the longer term, there is the possibility of utilizing alternative technologies once they become available, including mobile carbon-capture technology.
Saudi Arabia, led by the Saudi Energy Efficiency Center, is among the first MENA countries to have adopted fuel economy standards. Outside the region, another example includes the recent revision in the European Union’s CO2 emission standards for LDVs. In such a case, the speed and extent of GHG emissions reduction depends on how stringent the implemented standards prove to be.
While an EV is emission-free on the road, it is useful to calculate the net carbon emissions associated with using one by considering the energy mix that provides the electricity to charge it. Ideally, the energy used to charge EVs should be generated from low-carbon or carbon-neutral sources, so that EV deployment results in overall net emissions lower than levels generated by internal combustion (ICE) engine vehicles.
Time-of-use pricing can also incentivize charging during preferred times to fully reap the intended benefits. Further, it is worth noting that the projected near-term growth in EV uptake is not expected to result in substantial increases in energy consumption or peak load.
Barriers to EV adoption
Countries possessing significant shares of renewable energy like hydro, solar and wind in their energy mix are better suited for EV deployment. For example, countries such as Georgia and Tajikistan (both have a substantial share of hydropower) have increased investments in electric urban transport recently.
This does not mean that countries with inexpensive and abundant fossil fuels cannot still adopt EVs and reduce emissions. Hydrocarbon-rich nations can shift their generation from marginal sources toward lower-emission alternatives. For example, Saudi Arabia has announced an ambitious target aiming to generate 50% of its power needs using renewable energy by 2030, with the remainder provided by natural gas. Renewable electricity costs as well as battery costs for EVs, have been falling sharply. If the trend continues, EVs may eventually be suitable for general use in emerging markets, including in the MENA and Eurasia regions.
However, a rapid increase in demand for the core battery materials (e.g. cobalt, lithium), combined with constrained supply, may lead to significant increases in the cost of raw materials. Such increases could increase battery prices and ultimately electric vehicles prices, which could act as a barrier to EV adoption in the short term.
Another barrier is the lack of widespread EV charging infrastructure. Going forward, it we must build roads with an eye to a future where a significant proportion of vehicles could be EVs. This means that at the planning and design phase, road corridors need to be equipped with high-capacity EV chargers within existing fueling stations. To do so, in many cases it might be important to upgrade the local electrical grids and substations to handle these fast chargers, which consume significant energy.
Challenges like air pollution in cities continue to worsen, which should lead electorates exercising more pressure on local authorities to advance green policies. Cities are likely to become the e-mobility change champions in Eurasia (e.g., in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan) with many embracing green development concepts and preparing green city action plans (GCAPs). GCAPs will focus on developing e-mobility strategies and prioritizing investments in electric transport (buses, trolleybuses, taxis, metro and light rail transport systems). The bottom-up pressure will encourage mayors and city councils to speed up electrification of transport, while greening electricity supply.
With the right policy mix and synergy between the power and transportation sectors, as well as supportive investment by multilateral development banks to eco-responsible governments, all countries – including those who most rely on fossil fuels – have an opportunity to reduce their transportation-based GHG emissions.