The question is no longer whether the cities of the future will be more sustainable: they will have to be, considering that in 30 years’ time they will be inhabited by over 70% of the world’s population. The question is how to identify and adopt the most effective strategies for managing this future.
The World Economic Forum has published the “Electric Vehicles for Smarter Cities: The Future of Energy and Mobility” report which focuses on two essential aspects of urban sustainability – clean energy and clean transport – and the point in common they have, electric mobility: a decisive factor for the future of our cities and the climate and environment in general.
A fossil-fuelled car emits 20 kg of carbon dioxide on average every 100 km, while the electric equivalent is zero. Even when the entire life cycle of an electric vehicle is taken into account, including the extraction of raw materials, the production of its component parts and the electricity used during driving, its environmental impact is considerably lower.
While the numbers depend, in part, on the mix of energy generation in individual countries, greenhouse gas emissions in electric vehicles are always far lower than those running on internal combustion: e.g. 60% less in the United States and 72% in Italy, where the contribution of renewable energy to overall electricity generation has rapidly increased in recent years. When a country or city is able to generate completely decarbonised energy, electric vehicle emissions are 93% lower than those of traditional cars. Oslo and Montreal, cities where 95% of electricity is produced by hydropower, are close to reaching this target.
There is another essential element, which is often neglected: electric cars reduce the emission levels not only of carbon dioxide, which compromises the planet’s climate, but also of other polluting gases which are damaging to the environment and health at the local level.
Good resolutions and best practice
Following the 2015 Paris Climate Accord, many initiatives in favour of electric mobility have been adopted by national governments, local administrations and industries. France, Germany, Norway, The Netherlands and United Kingdom, and also China and India, have all declared their intention to outlaw the production and sale of fossil-fuel vehicles. Cities such as Athens, Madrid, Mexico City, Paris and Stuttgart have announced that a ban on access for diesel vehicles will be in place by 2030, 2032 for London.
Car manufacturers have also made significant promises: BMW is aiming to mass produce electric cars by 2020, with 12 models on the market by 2025, while Renault’s goal is to offer 12 hybrid and 8 entirely electric models by 2022. Others go even further: Volkswagen will supply electric or hybrid versions of all their cars by 2030 and Volvo will no longer launch combustion models from 2019.
Distance travelled counts more than the number of vehicles
According to the WEF report, however, encouraging drivers to buy electric cars will only partially contribute to tackling pollution, and is not enough to reach the stated goals in emission reduction: for a real paradigm shift, the most effective strategy will be the electrification of high-use vehicles. Public transport, car sharing and commercial fleets spend the most time on the roads and rack up the greatest distances: and this is where the difference can be made.
It isn’t only a question of electrifying vehicles: the routes are also important. For example, based on the 2030 projection for the United States, 85% of the vehicle stock will still be combustion-based, but the electrification of routes could affect 35% of vehicle miles: in contrast, the model focusing on electrification of personal-use vehicles would only reach 7%.
The report also highlights the economic and environmental advantages of smart charging, which encourages the management of charging times and methods beneficial to the grid, the energy mixes and the client: in avoiding peak moments of demand and, instead, taking advantage of times when renewable sources produce more electricity, the costs are reduced, the stability of the grid improved and the consumption of clean energy increased.
Making the most of these opportunities requires a dynamic tariff system along with a network of digitalised smart grids, to allow clients (especially owners of fleets of electric vehicles) to schedule charging in the most efficient way. Advanced energy services are essential to sustainability.