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Paradigm Shift: Electric vehicles keep defying predictions

It is tempting to believe that designing a future is as simple as drawing the right trajectory on a whiteboard. But as with everything else when it comes to climate, the challenge is bigger than that.

David Wallace-Wells

It is striking that in the same year that Tesla’s stock price dropped by about two-thirds, destroying more than $700 billion in market value, the global market for electric vehicles — which for so long the company seemed almost to embody — actually boomed.

Boom may not even adequately communicate what happened. Around the world, E.V. sales were projected to have grown 60 percent in 2022, according to a BloombergNEF report prepared ahead of the 2022 U.N. climate conference COP27, bringing total sales over 10 million. There are now almost 30 million electric vehicles on the road in total, up from just 10 million at the end of 2020. E.V. market share has also tripled since 2020. The pandemic years can feel a bit like a vacuum, but there are almost three times as many E.V.s on the world’s roads now as there were when Covid vaccines were first approved, and what looked not that long ago like a climate pipe dream is now undeniably underway: a genuine transition away from fossil-fueled transportation. This week, the Biden administration released a blueprint toward a net zero transportation sector by 2050. It’s an ambitious goal, especially for such a car-intoxicated culture as ours. But it’s also one that, thanks to trends elsewhere in the world, is beginning to seem more and more plausible, at least on the E.V. front.

In Norway, electric vehicles now represent four out of every five new cars sold; the figure was just one in five as recently as 2016. In Germany, more than 55 percent of new cars registered in December were electric or hybrid. In China, where more electric vehicles are sold than everywhere else in the world combined, the rise is perhaps even more dramatic: from 3.5 percent of the market at the beginning of 2020 to 20.3 percent at the beginning of 2022. And growing, of course: Nearly twice as many electric vehicles were sold last year in China as in the year before. The country also exported $3.2 billion worth of E.V.s last November alone, more than double the exports of the previous November. Its largest single manufacturer, BYD, has surpassed Tesla for global market share — so perhaps it should not be so surprising that Tesla’s stock is dimming while the global outlook is so sunny.

This is not just eye-popping growth, it is also dramatically faster than most analysts were projecting just a few years ago. In 2020, the International Energy Agency projected that the global share of electric vehicle sales would not top 10 percent before 2030. It appears we’ve already crossed that bar eight years early, and BloombergNEF now projects that the market share of E.V.s will approach 40 percent by the end of the decade. (The I.E.A. is less bullish but has still roughly doubled its 2030 projection in just two years.) The underlying production capacity is perhaps even more encouraging. In the United States, investments in battery manufacturing reached a record $73 billion last year — three times as much as the previous record, set the year before. Globally, battery manufacturing capacity grew almost 40 percent last year, and is projected to grow fivefold by just 2025. By that year, lithium mining is expected to be triple what it was in 2021.

We’ve seen this phenomenon before, with many other areas of the green transition experiencing similarly shocking exponential or quasi-exponential growth: renewable energy investments in the United States quadrupling in a decade, global investments in clean tech growing more than 30-fold over the same period, a solar supply chain already big enough to facilitate a total transition. It’s enough to make many optimistic observers giddy with anticipation of what’s to come.

What is to come? It is tempting to believe that designing a future is as simple as drawing the right trajectory on a whiteboard. But as with everything else when it comes to climate, the challenge is bigger than that — indeed, the fact that trend lines are beginning to point in the right direction can be a kind of false comfort, since technologies like these don’t just descend from the cloud onto the world’s phones.

And the scientist Vaclav Smil’s gloomy comparisons to previous energy transitions aside, the world hasn’t undertaken a breakneck allover revolution like this ever before in its history. Do the familiar, S-shaped learning curves of technological adaptation mean that it should be very easy, and indeed remunerative, for the world to get on track to limit warming below two degrees Celsius, or even 1.5 degrees, as a much talked about paper produced by Oxford’s Institute for New Economic Thinking has suggested? Or, as the scholar Jessica Jewell has argued in the journal Nature Energy and elsewhere, do the limitations of practical obstacles and political economy mean that, even assuming those encouraging learning curves, much more would have to be done to ensure technological adoption at that speed?

Here the E.V. revolution is an illuminating case study. To stabilize global temperatures, we have to get emissions basically all the way down to zero, not just reduce them — an interesting November paper in the journal Geophysical Research Letters suggests it might be better to aim for “approximately” net zero emissions, since it may be the case that global temperatures could stabilize even if emissions aren’t entirely eliminated. To do that, we need to stop burning fossil fuels in cars, not just supplement the existing fleet with slightly more green alternatives. A rapid growth in market share isn’t itself sufficient, in other words, because — like carbon itself, which hangs in the air for centuries at least — dirty cars stay on the road for a very long time, emitting all the while.

Economists call this a problem of stocks rather than flows. In this case, while the “flows” are indeed impressive, the “stock” of E.V.s on the road is probably only 2 percent of the global fleet, which still isn’t close to 100 percent at all.

The vast majority of electric vehicles are now sold in the world’s richer economies, and mid-transition challenges like building out new charging infrastructure are potentially much larger in lower income countries. But there, at least for now, the electric vehicle revolution is taking a very different shape — often with two or three wheels rather than four. Globally, there are 10 times as many electric scooters, mopeds and motorcycles on the road as true electric cars, accounting already for almost half of all sales of those vehicles and responsible already for eliminating more carbon emissions than all the world’s four-wheel E.V.s. It’s been something of a secret revolution here, too: In 2020, Americans bought twice as many e-bikes as they did E.V.s. As with everything else on climate, it’s not one story unfolding but many, and all at once.

Wallace-Wells is an Opinion Writer with NYT©2023

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