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E-mobility to drive Europe?

Irene Banos RuizApril 29, 2016

Transportation is a basic element of our lives, but also a major source of emissions. E-mobility is spreading around Europe as an alternative to fossil-fuel-powered vehicles - but financial challenges remain.

E-car getting plugged in for charging (Photo: Hendrik Schmidt/dpa)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/H. Schmidt

Anyone living in a European big city knows first-hand how unpleasant smoking exhaust pipes are - but the environment suffers it silently.

Policymakers, non-governmental groups, transport sector representatives and citizens met Thursday (28.04.2016) in Bonn, Germany, to speak out for the environment - and celebrate the launch of six electrically powered buses in the city.

A quiet and clean electric bus dazzled the audience, children on stage sang for the climate, and one speaker after another lauded the incorporation of electric vehicles into public transit thanks to the ZeEUS project - coordinated by the International Association of Public Transport (UITP) and co-funded by the European Commission.

Apart from nice words, challenges remain for the widespread adoption of e-mobility: The expensive costs of electric vehicles, their complex technical development, and a lack of collaboration between authorities and bus manufacturers.

"If we fail as a world with these buses, children are going to suffer it," said Nick Nuttall, spokesperson for United Nations Framework for Climate Change Convention (UNFCCC), in a speech.

E-Bus Launch in Bonn (Picture: Irene Banos)
Nick Nuttall pointed to future generations as motivation to work toward decarbonizationImage: DW/I. B. Ruiz

Changing the transport paradigm

"There were electric vehicles a hundred years ago," Nuttall told DW. "But then fossil fuels became more efficient and cheaper - and people did not know about climate change in those days."

Since the Industrial Revolution, Europe has been developing its transportation technology along the lines of fossil fuel consumption. The result today is that transport is responsible for 25 percent of greenhouse gas emissions - along with a large share of air pollution.

This is also true in the European Union, according to figures from the European Environment Agency (EEA).

Following the Paris agreement, the EU has committed to reducing its total emissions to at least 40 percent below 1990 levels (indicated on the graphic below as 100 percent) by 2030.

Moreover, its 2050 low-carbon economy roadmap aims to reduce transport emissions more than 60 percent by 2050. That would rely at least to some extent on electric vehicles.

Emission reduction goals infographic

"We strongly believe electric mobility will help in achieving the goals of the Paris agreement," Hugues Van Honacker, from the European Commission's DG MOVE, stated in Bonn. "Reducing fossil-fueled vehicles is the solution to reducing carbon dioxide and improving the air quality of cities."

Clean cars with dirty energy?

Electric vehicles are zero-emission when operated, so they do not contribute to CO2 emissions and air pollution. Although they are entirely powered by electricity, production of electricity is not always environmentally friendly.

According to Eurostat figures, in 2014 around 27 percent of net electricity generation in the EU came from renewable energy sources.

In the case of Bonn, event organizers say the new electric buses will be powered with 100 percent renewable energy. But this is not necessarily happening with all electric vehicles around Europe.

"Not all operators have the chance to have energy coming from renewable sources," Pauline Bruge, project manager at UITP, told DW. "That is obviously the next step for us."

Infographic electricity mix in the EU

The expensive road to decarbonization

"The main challenge of electric buses is their cost," Bruge said, pointing out that an electric bus is twice as expensive as a diesel bus. Bruge believes all other challenges electric vehicles face - use of renewable energy, developing better batteries and stimulating production of electric buses - depend on the financial issue.

To lighten the burden, the European Commission has provided financial support to 10 European cities - Bonn among them - for acquisition and use of electrically powered public service buses through the ZeEUS project (Zero Emission Urban Bus Sytem).

Tax exemptions have already been implemented in at least 18 European countries, according to the European Automobile Manufacturers Association. Moreover, Germany recently decided that electric cars buyers may receive a subsidy of 4,000 euros ($4,520).

Nuttall looks beyond the direct costs: "Tens of thousands of Europeans are having diseases linked with poor air quality," he said. "So these buses are bringing multiple long-term economic benefits, starting from reducing health costs."

Although an electric bus may turn out to be cheaper than a diesel bus over the entire life cycle, the process of using them would need to be carried to its conclusion to understand this, Bruge pointed out. "We need time for a final evaluation."

International conferenz about e-mobility in Berlin (Picture: REUTERS/Soeren Stache/Pool)
The new subsidy in Germany is expected to boost e-car salesImage: Reuters

Cleanly driving to the future

Even though sales of electric vehicles are currently around 1 percent of total new EU cars sold, the proportion of sales of such vehicles has been increasing since 2010.

Around 57,000 pure battery-electric vehicles were registered in 2015 in the EU - 50 percent more than in 2014, the EEA reported.

"Most of our operators have plans to 'clean' their bus lines, mainly through electrification, by 2025 or 2030," Bruge said. "They all want to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement and the European Commission," she added.

The Paris Agreement seeks decabornization of the global economy over upcoming decades, and climate neutrality in the second half of the century, Nuttall explained. Renewable energy and clean vehicles are hoped to stave off climate disaster.

"That is a hard task - but in the 21st century, it is possible," Nuttall said. "It is short of promising a secure future - for the kids singing the climate change songs today."

"It is their future in which we are investing with these buses."