*I subsequently turned this blog into a column

I discussed the Government’s announced reduction of the electric vehicle grant on Morning Ireland this morning. Here a quick blog expanding on some of the points I made, and some additional points I didn’t have the time to.

Summary: Even though electric vehicles are not the ideal solution to decarbonise transport, they are still far more favourable than fossil fuelled cars, and as a crucial part of the climate strategy we can’t afford to slow down their deployment.

  • Firstly, the Government does have some rationale for cutting the EV grant:
    • The Exchequer should not be funding private car ownership - the 2023 Climate Action Plan rightly prioritises “Avoiding” car dependency and “Shifting” to sustainable transport modes, alongside “Improving” car technology through electrification. EVs do not address many of the negative externalities of car dependency.
      • Secondly, the EV grant mainly benefits well-off people who tend to buy new cars anyway, who then go on to benefit from the far lower EV running costs, so in that sense the grant is regressive.
    • Thirdly, EVs have in many cases already reached cost parity with fossil fuel cars, even when only comparing upfront costs - there are good EV models whose cost is lower than many popular new fossil fuel car models. EVs are also far cheaper to run than fossil fuelled cars, so are often cheaper on a “total cost of ownership” basis. EV prices continue to fall, and battery ranges continue to grow. It does not make sense for the exchequer to subsidise something that is already cheaper.
  • But despite these points, we can’t afford to slow down the growth in EV sales. According to the IPCC’s synthesis report published last week, we have to make immediate, sustained, deep cuts in all sources of greenhouse gas emissions. But we are still adding around 90,000 new fossil fuelled cars to the fleet each year, which will emit carbon to the atmosphere up to 2040. An increasing share of cars are SUVs. These trends are for me the clearest evidence that we are not taking climate action seriously.

The point is not to maximise EV sales - it is to minimise fossil fuel car sales immediately, and part of this We have to switch as many new cars to electric as quickly as possible, along with reducing overall car use and ownership.

Policy must ensure that the strong year-on-year growth of new EV sales (80 per cent in 2022) is maintained to reduce fossil fuel car sales. I would argue that we can, and should, aim for electrifying close to 100 per cent of all new cars by 2026. This would be achievable by maintaining the 80 per cent year-on-year growth rate as follows:

  • 15 % share in 2022
  • 27 % in 2023
  • 49 % in 2024
  • 87 % in 2025

Now the Exchequer might be understandably reluctant to continue funding this EV subsidy, but we have to ask what is the most cost-effective way to meet carbon budgets? Several modelling studies we have undertaken in UCC that map different choices and pathways to meeting our carbon budgets point to an ongoing need for EV supports [1], along with reductions in overall car use [2]. Unless EV sales continue on a very strong growth trajectory and replace fossil fuel car sales well before 2030, then very costly measures would be necessary later this decade to prevent overshooting transport’s sectoral carbon budget, like paying to scrap fossil fuel cars early or potentially draconian travel restrictions.

EV grants are also often criticised as a subsidy for elite consumption, and there is merit to this argument. However, in order to make EVs affordable for people on regular incomes, so they can benefit from the much lower running costs, a large second hand EV market is necessary. This is not possible without scaling up new EV sales now.

There are also many misconceptions about EVs. My observation is that they seem to be held to a far higher standard than the status quo.

  • while their manufacturing has a higher carbon footprint than fossil fuelled cars, this is offset after one or two years of driving because of their far greater efficiency [3]. The they can also run on renewable electricity like wind and solar, which fossil fuel cars cant. And the direct emissions from powering an EV will be close to zero within a decade as we decarbonise power supply
  • they can improve the functioning of the power grid with a high share of wind and solar power, acting as flexible storage from hour-to-hour [4]
  • mining the minerals for batteries creates environmental damage - all mining does. But this is miniscule compared with the scale and damage from extracting, transporting, refining and burning oil [5]. These minerals are also recyclable and recoverable, whereas oil, once burned, is gone, turning into carbon dioxide that warms the planet for centuries
  • batteries last a lot longer than many people feared they would a decade ago. I drive a 9-year old Nissan Leaf whose battery is still at 85 % capacity, and the technology has come a long way since then. Even when it does come to the end of its usable life, the battery in the car can be replaced and the old one can be repurposed for home energy storage. The car itself has fewer moving parts (no combustion, no oil like in fossil fuel) so lasts longer and is easier to maintain.
  • Ireland is a very small part in the global supply chain, constrained as it is. We would require only 2-3% of all EU sales to reach full market share in 2025. China alone sold nearly 6 million EVs in 2022.

Ireland is also an ideal country for EVs in many ways: Distances are short (the distance between Cork and Donegal at 380 km, for example, is below the range of many standard EV models); a high proportion of people have their own driveway, allowing for home charging, and our dispersed settlement patterns limit the feasibility of more sustainable modes.

The rollout of far better public charging is an absolute priority. Most charging will be done at home - it requires no more than a power socket, or a dedicated home charger costing around €600, and is far cheaper, especially on a night rate with a smart meter or (even better) charged from rooftop solar PV. But even so, many people living in cities don’t have their own driveway require public chargers. Moreover, fast chargers along routes are necessary for longer journeys. Better public charging will also allow more people to feel confident buying EVs with lower range, which cost far less and are lighter, more efficient and require fewer materials.

Ultimately, policy will have to make buying new fossil fuel cars far less attractive than they currently seem. An EU-wide ban is proposed only from 2035, so an outright ban is not feasible. But there are other options. In my opinion, fossil fuelled cars should be discouraged in the same way smoking has: Through a combination of public health messaging, regulating advertising, regulation (like banning smoking in certain places), and taxation, far fewer people smoke now than decades ago. That took brave policymaking, that ultimately was very popular after the fact.

Similarly, I propose that car advertisements be regulated or banned. Funding should fill the shortfall in advertising revenue for media. Cars should be marketed not on the basis of the upfront sales price, but on the overall cost of ownership, giving consumers a fair comparison and overcoming the “hyperbolic discounting” behvaiour, where people discount savings in the future. The lifetime carbon emissions of cars should also be prominently displayed with an emphasis on the damage it causes to the climate, similar to health warnings on cigarette packages. The new vehicle taxation system should also be far more disfavourable to progressively heavier, inefficient fossil fuel cars and introduce a weight tax, to promote lighter cars (including EVs) over heavier ones, that are more dangerous and intensive to build.

We should also consider clean air zones in cities, as London has.

At the same time, we must wherever possible promote a shift to alternative transport modes [6]. The fairest and most efficient way to cut greenhouse gas emissions is to make it feasible and attractive for people to live without needing to own a private car, by emphasising transport-led compact development, quality public transport and reallocating road space to cycling and walking.

But very many people are locked into car ownership for the foreseeable future and retrofitting public transport to our dispersed rural settlements will never be fully viable. So wherever possible, the cars that we do use should be electric.

[1] Aryanpur et. al., 2022. Decarbonisation of passenger light-duty vehicles using spatially resolved TIMES-Ireland Model. Applied Energy. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apenergy.2022.119078 [2] Balyk et. al., 2022. TIM: modelling pathways to meet Ireland’s long-term energy system challenges with the TIMES-Ireland Model (v1.0) https://doi.org/10.5194/gmd-15-4991-2022 [3] Woody et. al., 2022. The role of pickup truck electrification in the decarbonization of light-duty vehicles https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ac5142 [4] Daly, 2023. Energy storage and flexibility is the new frontier of zero-carbon electricity, Irish Times https://hannahdaly.ie/2023-01-05-power-system-flexibility/ [5] Transport & Environment (2021), From dirty oil to clean batteries. https://www.transportenvironment.org/discover/batteries-vs-oil-comparison-raw-material-needs/ [6] Daly, 2022 Road space in our cities must be given over to bikes and public transport – not private cars. Irish Times https://hannahdaly.ie/2022-08-04-road-space/