Electric cars aren’t enough to reduce emissions, we need alternative fuels

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Electric cars are often seen as one of the great hopes for tackling climate change. With new models arriving in showrooms, major carmakers retooling for an electric future, and a small but growing number of consumers eager to convert from gas guzzlers, EVs appear to offer a way for us to decarbonize with little change to our way of life.

Yet there is a danger that fixating on electric cars leaves a large blind spot. Electrification would be very expensive for the lumbering lorries that haul goods across continents or is currently technically prohibitive for long-distance air travel.

Beyond all the enthusiasm surrounding electrification, currently light-duty passenger vehicles only comprise 50 percent of total global demand for energy in the transportation sector compared to 28 percent for heavy road vehicles, 10 percent for air, 9 percent for sea and 2 percent for rail.

Put simply, the current focus on electrifying passenger vehicles – though welcome – represents only part of the answer. For most other segments, fuels will be needed for the foreseeable future. And even for cars, electric vehicles are not a cure-all.

The unfortunate truth is that, on their own, battery electric vehicles (BEVs) cannot solve what we call the “100 EJ problem”. Demand for transport services are expected to rise dramatically in the coming decades. So the International Energy Agency (IEA) projects that we need to significantly reduce the amount of energy each vehicle uses just to keep total global energy demand in the transport sector roughly flat at current levels of 100 exajoules (EJ) by 2050. More than half of that 100 EJ is still expected to come from petroleum products and, by then, the share of light-duty vehicles in transport sector energy demand is expected to decline from 50 percent to 34 percent.