Globally, gas car phaseout gains momentum

Europe and Asia lead push to replace traditional cars with electric and hybrid ones amid climate and pollution concerns.

Melanie Stetson Freeman
Electric cars recharge at a solar-powered charging station in Samso, Denmark.

First, it was low emission zones – laws restricting where polluting vehicles can go within a town or city. In Europe more than 200 such zones have been established. Now, national governments are poised to take the next step in the fight against air pollution: limits on the sales of gas and diesel vehicles.

In the Netherlands, the government is pushing forward a plan to end the sales of gas and diesel vehicles by 2030. France and Britain have announced similar plans for 2040. In Norway, which has strong targets for getting gas and diesel cars off the road, 2017 was the first year in which electric and hybrid vehicle sales exceeded 50 percent of total sales. India says it will electrify all new vehicles as soon as 2030. With an expanding electric car market, falling battery prices, and an increasing number of regulations, electric vehicles could replace petrol-powered ones faster than anticipated, some experts say.

China, the world’s largest automobile-producing country, has yet to enforce a ban, but Chinese officials are expected to follow their international counterparts and have hinted at the creation of a timetable for phasing out the production of gas and diesel vehicles. Even now, China has asked automakers to ensure that 10 percent of car sales are electric vehicles by 2019.

The push to get gas and diesel vehicles off the road is the result of continuing concerns about carbon emissions and air pollution, experts say. The World Health Organization identifies air pollution as the largest environmental health risk, attributing 3 million deaths to outdoor air pollution each year.

“Many of these countries are motivated by climate policy goals and reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” says Jessika Trancik, an associate professor at the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “[A]nd one way to do that is to transition away from conventional powertrains and internal combustion engine vehicles....”

Choosing to purchase an electric vehicle instead of a gas-fueled car tends to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, says Dr. Trancik. On average in the United States, buying an electric car instead of a gas-powered one can reduce a driver’s greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent or more per mile. She notes that emissions savings depend on how clean the electricity source is, but in the majority of locations the savings are substantial.

Reducing the number of gas and diesel vehicles also minimizes air pollution in city centers. Decreasing tailpipe pollutants in populated areas will limit pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide and keep particulate matter from streets and sidewalks, says Richard Simmons, a senior research engineer and fellow at Georgia Institute of Technology’s Strategic Energy Institute in Atlanta.

A recent drop in battery prices has amped up enthusiasm for electric vehicles as an alternative to gas and diesel models, experts say. 

“[A] lot of the excitement around the world regarding banning internal combustion vehicles is driven by the excitement around the electric vehicle,” says Roland Hwang, managing director for the Climate and Clean Energy Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco. This excitement “is really driven by the excitement around the progress of battery technology.”

As some countries gear up for a future with fewer gas and diesel vehicles on the road, experts note that challenges lay ahead in making outlined goals a reality, including continuing to advance battery technology and dispersing vehicle emissions information to consumers. “[T]here’s still a lot of work to do,” says Trancik.

Even if countries fulfill their promises to eliminate the production of gas and diesel vehicles, internal combustion cars won’t disappear from roadways overnight, as cars purchased before regulations kick in will still be allowed on the road. However, some nations hope to speed the transition process by following the production bans with an overall ban of gas and diesel vehicles. Britain expects all cars on its roads to be zero-emission by 2050.

The increasing number of vehicle emissions rules is placing the auto industry on notice, says Mr. Hwang. When “talking about banning the internal combustion engine vehicle, it’s not really a harebrained scheme. It’s actually very feasible and plausible, and ... how fast can they do it is really the question.”

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