The Beginning of the End of Fossil Fuels

By: Chandu Visweswariah

The writing is on the wall: we are witnessing the beginning of the end of fossil fuels (as well as the beginning of the end of the internal combustion engine)!

Fossil fuels are used in the electricity sector, transportation sector, for building heat and in industrial processes (like making cement and steel). By 2040, we need to decarbonize all four sectors. Here, we’ll focus on transportation while other sectors will be discussed in future blogs.

The end of gasoline vehicles can be measured by the fraction of electric vehicles sold, the fraction of electric vehicles on the road or the fraction of miles driven in electric vehicles. All three metrics will change faster than most people imagine, increasing from near zero to near one hundred percent in the order stated above. Once 100% of vehicles sold are EVs, it stands to reason that about 10 years later, almost all cars on the road and all miles driven will be electric. Today, we are at about 11% plug-in vehicle sales in Europe with higher numbers expected by year-end, and 2% in the United States.

The speed of this transition has profound implications not only for the automobile industry, but for our planet.  Over 30% of emissions are from transportation, and we must decarbonize this sector in a “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented” manner, to quote the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Every gasoline vehicle sold today will emit CO2 during its entire useful lifetime, to say nothing of dangerous particulate emissions. It is important to remember that CO2 stays in the atmosphere for decades following its release during combustion, causing long-term global warming impacts.

What makes me believe this transition will be rapid? While it is true that I am an optimist, there are strong reasons that seem to be either misunderstood or under-estimated. Below are my top 10 reasons to expect a rapid transformation. As my friend Bill Nussey says in his blog, these transitions will occur irrespective of regulations and policy, but good policies are an accelerant.

First, let us take note of California’s recent order to ban sales of gasoline cars and pickup trucks by 2035. Governor Newsom of California said, “We have a strategy to be as bold as the problem is big. We’re not just victims of fate.” In New York, State Senator Pete Harckham has proposed similar legislation to ban gasoline cars and light trucks by 2035. Said Senator Harckham, “The climate crisis that we are facing can only be averted with decisive action. The changeover to zero emission vehicles is just one part of a larger, all-out initiative necessary to save our planet.” So far, 14 other states have adopted zero-emission laws. In addition, 15 countries including Britain, Denmark and Norway have announced plans to phase out internal combustion engines. More announcements are forthcoming. What impact will these announcements have? Imagine a major capital investment in a new factory to produce internal combustion engines? These announcements will put a crimp on such investments, which will get even more unlikely later in the decade. At the same time, these announcements will spur research, development and innovation in the electric car industry!

Speaking of innovation, the second reason for a rapid transition is fast progress in the EV industry. Battery chemistries are improving, energy densities improving, manufacturing techniques are improving, battery lifetimes are improving, and costs are falling, all at a rapid pace. The EV industry is benefiting from an extremely rapid “learning rate” which is defined as the reduction in cost for every doubling of manufacturing volume. Battery technology has outpaced every industry pundit’s forecasts and extrapolations thus far. The crossover when EVs will be cheaper in up-front cost than their internal combustion step-cousins is 2024 (various industry reports predict from 2022 to 2025). Once you take total cost of ownership into account including fuel, maintenance and trade-in value, electric vehicles are already superior. Innovation is not limited to battery improvements. EVs are fun to drive, have brought improvements like regenerative braking and one-pedal driving to the fore, and have the latest self-driving and safety features.

A third reason for a rapid transition is public sentiment, unfortunately more so in Europe than in the U.S. However, I must take pause here – public sentiment is extremely hard to change. Witness Croton Harmon School District’s recent decision to buy a gasoline bus when an electric bus was available at a financially advantageous cost to the School District. This is a prime example of well-meaning people who have a desire to do the right thing clinging to the fossil fuel status quo. The sentiment battle will be long and hard-won.

Fourth, a shift to EVs will also reduce particulate emissions with a concomitant decrease in diseases like asthma and emphysema – these are part of the unaccounted “externality costs” of using fossil fuels. The health argument is all the more pointed when it comes to replacing diesel school buses with electric equivalents for the sake of our children! The health argument can be used to turbocharge public sentiment.

The rapid transition will be driven by another aspect of economics: resale cost. As legislation and sentiment crowd out internal combustion engines, they will have a lower resale cost. By contrast, electric vehicles with very few moving parts will last much longer with minimal maintenance. How long do the batteries last, you may ask?

 

– so, for example, instead of 250 miles of range on a single charge, the car might only deliver 225 miles. Once we achieve “million-mile batteries,” it will be game over! The market for a gas car purchase with little to no resale value will begin to spook consumers before long, and electric vehicles will be far superior in this regard.

A sixth reason for an accelerating transition is the self-driving revolution. We all know it is coming. It is a question of when, not if. Imagine that we entered an inter-galactic chess competition and had to send one player from earth.

Without doubt we would send a computer and not a human. Similarly, we can each have the world’s best driver (with the world’s fastest reflexes) dedicated to our personal needs in a self-driving car. This will change everything – not the least of which will be obviating the need for parking lots and car ownership. When ground transportation evolves to fleets of self-driven cars, you can be sure they will all be electric! See “Clean Disruption” and “Rethinking Transportation” by Tony Seba for more on this coming revolution!

Charging infrastructure is getting a lot of attention these days and is the seventh reason to expect a rapid transition. New York State has plans for 50,000 charging stations; Former Vice President Joe Biden’s clean energy plan calls for 500,000 charging stations nationwide. These charging stations will both alleviate range anxiety and attract renters to own EVs.

Reason number eight: we will increasingly see parking, lane, access and toll restrictions for conventional cars. Electric cars can drive in high-occupancy lanes in many places and enjoy preferential parking. The resort town of Zermatt in Switzerland has prohibited gasoline vehicles since the 1970s and we are starting to see increased local and regional regulations that will make life uncomfortable for internal combustion engines. Can we implement zero-emission central districts in our own villages and towns?

Most people do not realize the extent to which we subsidize fossil fuels. Damon Gameau’s documentary “2040” states that the governments of the world subsidize fossil fuels to the tune of $10 million per minute (which works out to about $5.3 trillion per year) – a figure supported by the International Monetary Fund. The fossil fuel industry is benefiting massively from subsidies while causing damage to our health and environment – this is simply not sustainable. The subsidies will recede, and the true cost of burning fossil fuels will increasingly be borne by the consumer, making it exceedingly unattractive, to say nothing of unethical and immoral.

My tenth and last reason for expecting rapid change is that you are reading this blog! Your interest will drive your desire to trailblaze this exciting new path that will save money, improve health and rescue our planet. Never buy a gasoline vehicle ever again!

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