Are electric vehicles going to save us?

When it comes to the planet being on fire and reducing our emissions, a lot of us think “hey, can’t we just all get in electric cars and that’ll sort it out?” Dr Nadine Dodge takes a closer look.

I spend my days working to build walking, cycling, and public transport infrastructure so I am pretty used to hearing something along the lines of “why bother with this stuff, when EV’s are going to save us from our climate problems?”. Usually, I shrug this question off by discussing the many other reasons why we should boost active transport, such as healthier people and reduced congestion on the roads.

However, I get asked this question so much these days that it’s clearly something lots of people are thinking about. And if people think or even suspect that there’s an easier path through this climate crisis, few of us will be committed to the changes that we really need to make.

So today: are EV’s going to save us and do we really need to bother with all that walking, cycling, and public transport stuff?

Firstly, the problem

Let’s start with a refresher on our climate targets. Through the Paris Agreement, New Zealand has committed to:

  • reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 30% below 2005 levels by 2030, and
  • reduce emissions to 50% below 1990 levels by 2050.

The Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Act 2019 sets an even more ambitious target: to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2050.

So it’s incredibly important – the most important thing for humanity right now – to get emissions down. 

Double down on reducing transport emissions

For New Zealand, because of our methane-heavy emissions profile, transport is the low-hanging fruit.  It’s still “giraffe height”, but it’s the sector where we can reduce emissions with the least pain. So transport needs to reduce much more than its share of our emissions, because our other big emitting sectors can’t do it nearly as fast or with as (relatively) little pain. 

So is the transport emissions fruit about to drop into our hands? No.

Firstly, transport emissions have risen a lot over the past two decades. Transport emissions in 2019 were 22 percent higher than in 2005 and nearly double 1990 emission levels. The chart below shows emissions from 1990 to 2019, and then the target trajectory needed to meet our 2030 and 2050 goals under the Paris Agreement. To meet the 2030 target for the transport sector, we need to reduce transport emissions by 42 percent, relative to current levels. That sounds like a lot, but we will need to reduce transport emissions even more to meet our Zero Carbon Act commitments while picking up the slack for other sectors that can’t make drastic reductions quickly.

emissions form land transport graph

Source: Time series emissions data 1990 to 2019 from New Zealand’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory (Ministry for the Environment, 2021)

The rest of this analysis assumes that transport only contributes its share to overall committed reduction goals under the Paris Agreement, so it should be considered the bare minimum that transport will need to achieve. If we actually do this properly, transport emissions reductions will need to be much more drastic.

Let’s crunch some numbers! [1]

We can think of the country’s transport emissions as a product of three factors: the average fuel efficiency of the vehicle fleet, the annual distance driven per person, and the size of the population. With the population of the country as a generally fixed input, our two main plays are to reduce the average emissions factor for the fleet and reduce distance travelled per person (i.e., focusing on accessibility over mobility and shifting car trips to walking, cycling, and public transport).

total transport emissions graphic

How much it emits to move you

average emissions factor

The chart below shows the average emissions per kilometre driven by fuel type for light vehicles, according to the Ministry for the Environment. There are three main alternatives to traditional petrol and diesel cars: electric cars are powered by electric power alone, plug-in hybrids go a short distance (30-60km) on electric power and then revert to petrol, and hybrid cars are more efficient versions of petrol and diesel cars that utilise a small battery to harness waste energy from braking.

Looking at the chart, it becomes clear that while swapping out petrol and diesel vehicles for hybrids and plug-in hybrids certainly helps, full electric vehicles are really the way to go when it comes to dramatically reducing emissions.

average emission per km by fuel type

Source: Measuring Emissions: A Guide for Organisations: 2020 Detailed Guide. (Ministry for the Environment, 2020)

So given how there’s no time to muck about, let’s focus on the role of full EVs in getting to our targets.  

Full EVs: growing fast… still a tiny drop

If you have a look at this chart from the Ministry of Transport website, it looks like we are off to a good start. Electric vehicle registrations have gone from almost nothing in 2014 to around 24,000 by the end of 2020.  

EV fleet size

Source: Monthly EV Statistics (Ministry of Transport, 2021)

But wait, how big is this in context of the whole New Zealand vehicle fleet? Unfortunately, it’s more like a drop in the ocean compared to a drop in a bucket. Waka Kotahi have recently released an open dataset which provides the details for every vehicle currently registered in New Zealand. The chart below shows the composition of the vehicle fleet by age and fuel type, as of July 2021. The fleet currently stands at nearly 4.8 million vehicles. Unfortunately you have to squint to see the EVs on the chart: only half of one percent are electric vehicles and just over 2 percent are hybrids of some kind.

Composition of the NZ vehicle fleet

Source: Author, using data from the New Zealand vehicle fleet open data sets (Waka Kotahi, 2021)

As you can see, we hang onto our vehicles for ages, far longer than our peer countries. This creates some big problems for greening the vehicle fleet (more on this later).

New vehicles coming in: Be Like Norway

Okay so things are looking pretty bad on the EV uptake front right now. But maybe you are thinking: what about Norway, they transitioned to EV’s really quickly, didn’t they? Yes, they did, the fastest in the world in fact. The chart below shows EV sales in Norway over the last 10 years. New Zealand’s EV market share is equivalent to where Norway was in 2011, and electric vehicle sales hit an astounding 87 percent last month (full electric and plug-in electric combined).

They show that it is indeed possible to transition from less than two percent to almost exclusively EV sales in a decade.  

While there are still lots of older emitting vehicles driving around in Norway, they’ve almost stopped the import of new emitting vehicles, and plan to end the sale of fossil fuel-powered cars completely by 2025. 

Norway plug-in market share of vehicle sales

Source: Plug-in electric vehicles in Norway (Wikipedia, 2021)

We have a new scheme now, aren’t we “Doing a Norway?”  

While it might seem like Utemaggeden out there in the media recently, New Zealand’s current feebate scheme is nowhere near as big a finger on the scale as Norway’s scheme. In Norway, petrol vehicles are subject to a value-added tax, emissions taxes, and weight taxes, while EV’s are exempt from all taxes. Because of this, in Norway EVs works out to be cheaper than the equivalent petrol car. For example, in Norway a petrol VW golf costs the equivalent of $50,000 NZD while a VW e-golf costs $44,295 NZD. In contrast, here in New Zealand a petrol VW golf costs $37,990 NZD while a VW e-golf costs $60,865 NZD after the feebate.

With the best vibes in the world, we’ll still never get the type of transition that Norway has seen until we do what they did: make it cheaper to buy an EV than a petrol car.

Imagining NZ’s vehicle fleet in 2030  

For the moment, let us assume that New Zealand has an overnight EV revolution and that by 2030, around 87% of all new car registrations are plug-in vehicles (either full electric or plug-in hybrid). What does the fleet look like? We see in the chart below that electric vehicles have risen to 20 percent of the fleet and plug-in hybrid vehicles have risen to 5 percent of the fleet. Using today’s emissions factors for different vehicle types, this transition would equate to a 21 percent reduction in the average emissions factor for the vehicle fleet.

Fleet composition in 2030, best case scenario

Source: Author, using data from the New Zealand vehicle fleet open data sets (Waka Kotahi, 2021)

A complicating factor

There is unfortunately one more complicating factor: used imports. The outcomes above assumed that all future vehicle registrations in NZ followed the EV uptake trajectory seen in Norway. However, if you look at the chart below, you can see that over a third (38 percent) of our new registrations in 2020 were more than 5 years old. If we want to continue this pattern of importing large numbers of old vehicles, there needs to be enough EVs in Japan available to meet our big and urgent need, as most used imports come from the Japanese market.

Vehicle age of first registrations

Source: Author, using data from the New Zealand vehicle fleet open data sets (Waka Kotahi, 2021)

The Ministry of Transport is aware of this problem and publishes statistics on EV registrations in Japan on their website. According to them, Japan registered just over 21,000 new electric vehicles last year. The same year, NZ imported over 138,000 used vehicles. The numbers just don’t add up: there is no way Japan is cranking out enough EVs right now to meet our demand for used imports in 5 years’ time.

The chart below shows the results of a more realistic EV uptake trajectory: NZ new vehicles have the electric vehicle uptake trajectory seen in Norway, while used vehicle imports follow the fleet distribution for their respective vehicle years (i.e.  2018 model year used imports match the current EV uptake for 2018 models).

If we continue the current pattern of used imports and only see a large electric vehicle uptake for new vehicles (not used imports), we get to 12 percent electric vehicles and 3 percent plug-in hybrids by 2030. This would equate to a 12 percent reduction in the average emissions factor for the vehicle fleet.

Fleet composition in 2030, current composition for used imports

Source: Author, using data from the New Zealand vehicle fleet open data sets (Waka Kotahi, 2021)

Which, as you can probably guess, is way too slow if we want EVs to save us.

Summing it all up

Thinking back to our targets, we have a challenging decade ahead of us as we need to reduce transport emissions by 42 percent, relative to 2019 levels. If we achieved a radical uptake of electric vehicles like that seen in Norway, that would reduce our country’s emissions per distance travelled by somewhere between 12 and 21 percent.

If we push hard, EVs can get us somewhere between one quarter to half of the way to even our current (most likely inadequate) 2030 targets for the transport sector.

We will need to get the rest of the way through a combination of other measures.

Some of these other measures might be related to the emissions factor part of the equation, like the clean car standard and a move to modernise the vehicle fleet by retiring older more polluting vehicles.

But there will still be a long gap to bridge and that means reducing the average distance that every person needs travel just to do the business of living. This also faces strong headwinds, as a large proportion of housing development is occurring in poorly connected greenfield suburbs that shackle us to longer distance journeys that are often made by car. Reducing distances travelled by car means reshaping our towns, streets and neighbourhoods so vastly more people choose to walk, bike, scoot and take the bus instead of driving those aging, emitting private cars.

I’m not out of a job yet, but professionals are only one thing. All of us are actors in this story.  

[1] In reality, emissions modelling is more complex and takes into account other factors, like variations in vehicle kilometres travelled by vehicle age. This is a high-level representation of the issue, and modelling undertaken by the Climate Commission is more detailed.