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Is the shift to electric cars running out of energy?

  • By Ben Chu
  • Business Editor, Newsnight

Dynamic sales of electric cars are essential if we are to achieve our climate goals. But electric vehicle sales in the West are falling and if governments want them to recover, it may have to come at the expense of their own economies.

Numbers

Any highway driver will know the feeling: you’re speeding along, miles of open road seem to follow you, and suddenly, out of nowhere, a slowdown.

Something similar has hit the electric vehicle market in 2024. After years of soaring sales, growth appears to be stagnating.

Replacing fossil fuel-powered cars with electric vehicles is at the heart of the UK government’s plan to meet its climate targets – with road transport accounting for 12% of global emissions.

The question is whether this is an incident that will soon fade into the rearview mirror, or whether it will prove more lasting. And if this lasts, will governments have the courage to do what it takes to keep the spectacle of net zero emissions on the road?

We need to buy a lot more electric vehicles to meet climate goals

The growth in electric vehicle sales has been remarkable. In 2020, there were 10 million electric vehicles on the roads, in 2023 there would be 45 million. But sales must still be remarkable, and the chart below shows just how remarkable.

By 2035, the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that 790 million electric vehicles will be needed if we are to reach net zero emissions by mid-century.

That’s why the fact that global sales of the world’s largest electric vehicle maker, Tesla, were actually lower in the first quarter of 2024 compared to the same period in 2023 has raised eyebrows.

BYD, China’s largest electric vehicle maker, is vying with Tesla for the top spot. BYD also experienced a slowdown between January and March.

And electric vehicle sales in Europe fell more than 10% year-on-year in the final quarter of last year.

People just aren’t sure they’re worth it

In the UK, analysts say strong sales of electric vehicles in recent years have been fueled by the purchase of company cars, thanks to generous tax breaks.

But the household market is proving more difficult to resolve, with people mainly saying they are put off by the high cost. The average price of a new electric vehicle in the US is over $60,000 (£47,433). Prices are just as high in Europe and the UK.

Significant state subsidies and greater production efficiency mean the average cost to a Chinese consumer is just $30,000. And BYD’s Seagull sedan sells for less than $10,000.

China also makes far more electric vehicles than its domestic market needs: it could easily flood the US and European markets with cheap cars if the latter were not held back by tariffs.

Difficult choices at the crossroads

This is the dilemma facing European and American politicians. They want cheaper electric vehicles to aid the climate transition, but not at the cost of harming their own automakers – like Ford and Volkswagen – and local jobs.

In fact, there is talk of increasing customs duties and other trade barriers on imports in order to exclude ultra-competitive Chinese electric vehicles.

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The IEA still forecasts sales to rise in 2024, which would keep us more or less on track to reach net zero.

Optimists hope more people will buy electric vehicles when discounted used vehicles hit the market in Europe and America. But this clear path is not guaranteed.

Electric vehicle prices in the West may prove sticky, while China continues to produce very cheap vehicles.

If this happens, the tension between Western governments’ desire to decarbonize transportation and their desire to protect national manufacturing champions is expected to become even more acute.

At some point, they might be forced to choose.

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