Commentary / World

What electric vehicles portend for the future

The EV revolution could drastically cut CO2 emissions but may bring large-scale job losses

by Takamitsu Sawa

Britain and France announced recently that the sale of gasoline- and diesel-powered motor vehicles would be banned by 2040. The Chinese government has also moved up by 10 years to 2030 the date for prohibiting the sale of such vehicles, while also obligating automakers to power at least 10 percent of new vehicles produced or sold in and after 2019 with new energy sources, like electric vehicles (EVs), plug-in hybrid electric vehicles and fuel cell cars.

To attain the goals under the Paris agreement on climate change, it is imperative to replace vehicles powered by conventional engines emitting huge amounts of carbon dioxide with EVs and other new energy vehicles. The Chinese government defines “new energy vehicles” as those that emit little or no CO2. A motor-driven EV carrying a storage battery certainly does not emit CO2 when driven. However, CO2 is still emitted at the source of electric power generation to varying degrees.

Here, I would like to first quantify how an EV serves to reduce the per-unit-distance emission of CO2 compared with a gasoline-powered vehicle (and dispel the misunderstanding that such a reduction is achieved only when nuclear power is the primary source of electricity supply), and second discuss the possibility that such an EV revolution might give rise to a serious unemployment problem.

Of the total CO2 emissions in Japan, the transportation sector accounts for 17 percent, according to 2015 statistics. Of that portion, passenger cars account for 51 percent and trucks and buses for 36 percent, with the remaining 13 percent attributed to railways, airplanes and ships.

The structure of an EV, in which a motor and a storage battery are mounted, is quite simple compared with a conventional engine-powered vehicle. It’s so simple that proud engineers who have built automobiles may lose interest. One of the reasons that long hampered new entry into the car industry was the high skills required in developing engines that, in the past, competed for more horsepower and rapid acceleration and, more recently, greater fuel efficiency. Improving engine performance must have been the pride of automotive engineers more than anything else. The hybrid vehicle, which Toyota Motor Corp. commercialized in 1997, and the subsequent plug-in hybrid car, are the ultimate form technological development in engine-powered vehicles.

Burning one liter of gasoline emits 2,300 grams of CO2. Since motor vehicles, including trucks and buses, account for nearly 15 percent of Japan’s total CO2 emissions, improving vehicle fuel efficiency is an urgent task for combating climate change.

How much less CO2 does an EV, which indirectly emits carbon dioxide at the source of electricity generation, emit per unit distance compared with a gasoline-powered car? The CO2 emission per 1 kilowatt-hour of power generation depends, of course, on the composition of energy sources at power plants. A thermal power plant emits more CO2 than any other type. Greater use of hydraulic power, nuclear power and renewable energy can reduce CO2 emissions. In fiscal 2010, just before the March 2012 disaster at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holding’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, the national average CO2 emission was 416 grams per kilowatt-hour. In fiscal 2013, after all nuclear power plants were idled, the figure rose to 570 grams.

Fuel economy is about 10 km per liter for gasoline-powered passenger cars and a little over 20 km per liter for hybrid cars. The comparable figure for EVs is some 10 km per kilowatt-hour. Even with all nuclear power plants idled, an EV emits only about half as much CO2 as hybrid vehicles. Even if all power stations used coal, the CO2 emission per kilowatt-hour would be 864 grams, making CO2 emissions from an EV less than from a hybrid car.

Tesla Inc. is the leading maker of electric vehicles. It was the EV revolution that has enabled the company to venture into a U.S. auto industry dominated for more than a century by General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. British electric appliance maker Dyson Ltd. has invested £1 billion in the development of EVs, and reportedly hopes to launch a revolutionary model in the early 2020s. I am convinced that Japan’s struggling electric appliance manufacturers will in the very near future also venture into the EV market.

Another attractive feature of EVs is that electricity is much less expensive than gasoline. Compared with the gasoline price of around ¥130 per liter, electricity costs a mere ¥20 to ¥30 per kilowatt-hour (and the rate drops even further during late night hours). Initially, EVs had the shortcoming of being able to travel only a short distance per battery charge. Now they can travel for 400 to 500 km per charge. The time required for charging has also been shortened. A 30 minute charge is enough to power an EV for 200 km.

A serious social problem that the EV revolution entails is a possible large-scale loss of job opportunities. Gasoline-powered vehicles are made up of so many components that parts suppliers alone employ 600,000 workers. According to estimates made by the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association, 5.34 million men and women work in auto-related industrial segments, including parts manufacturers, gas stations, trucking companies and materials producers. As batteries and motors replace internal combustion engines, it’s estimated that 1 million people will lose their jobs.

The EV revolution is a must for mitigating climate change. The development is also accompanied by progress in self-driving vehicle technology. Within the next quarter century, the circumstances surrounding the auto industry will undergo dramatic changes. It is my sincere hope that Japan’s auto industry, which has been earning trade surpluses of ¥10 to ¥15 trillion annually, will be able to maintain its international competitiveness.

A longtime contributor to The Japan Times, Takamitsu Sawa is a distinguished professor at Shiga University.