Since COP25 two years ago, electric car sales have accelerated. That should cheer delegates who attended this year’s conference. Over the course of 2021 motorists are expected to buy 5.6m units, 2.7 times the number sold in 2019.

Europe and China have led the charge on new EV sales. For example, in the two years through to June this year, more than one in every five cars bought by Germans were electric (including hybrids).

However, fully electric vehicles do not by themselves reduce emissions. The power sources used to charge them also have to become cleaner.

Lex chart showing emissions for battery electric vehicles, by country

Electric cars, of course, are cleaner than fossil fuel ones. Consider the lifecycle CO2 emissions of fully electric cars produced in 2020, assuming they are driven for 250,000km. In the UK, US and Germany such vehicles offer large emission reductions of 76 per cent, 60 per cent and 49 per cent respectively when run on the typical mix of power sources in mains electricity.

Germany’s poor performance reflects its exposure to dirty lignite and coal as fuels. Hydroelectric-dependent countries such as Norway do strikingly better.

However, a much smaller reduction in emissions occurs in China, at less than a fifth. China has the biggest market for plug-in cars. Fully electric vehicles accounted for 9 per cent of its entire market in the first half of this year, more than double the figure for 2019. Every year it adds more solar power capacity than any other nation. But as of November 2020, two-thirds of China’s electricity came from coal-fired generation, says the IEA. China’s huge appetite for coal means it plans to add almost a fifth to its coal-powered generation capacity of more than 1,000GW.

Looking ahead to 2030, all countries including China have plans to build out their renewable electricity capacity. All should have big improvements on lifetime emissions, but in particular the UK and Germany should expect the largest proportional gains.

Cleaner electricity means cleaner-running fully electric vehicles. As such, any carbon emissions advantage from battery cars versus petrol one will only grow.

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