When it comes to our mobility, the popularisation of electric vehicles (EV) symbolises the combination of advancements in technology coupled with the urgency of climate change. Globally, we are still not meeting the target greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reductions. Countries like China intend to phase out internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles by 2030, Singapore by 2040, and now, the prospect of an increasingly electrified motor fleet in Malaysia is drawing closer.
Ultimately, the intent of EVs is to reduce fossil-fuel consumption in transport and the emissions to our atmosphere that come with it. However, EVs as standalone units are not going to be the single solution to a lower-carbon transition. In fact, electrification of vehicles is not likely to reduce our emissions significantly unless the grid electricity that we are powering them on sees an increasingly higher proportion of renewable energy in its energy mix.
The work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) by Prof John Sterman illustrates how the lens of systems dynamics helps us view climate change challenges holistically — rarely does any significant change happen as a single independent event. His work helps educate people to catalyse positive change by designing high-leverage policies for sustained improvement. Of course, “greening” the ecosystem of transport networks constitutes only one component of the battle to reduce carbon emissions, but automobiles are an essential component. Change requires leadership in all areas and many shapes and forms. Let us break it down: Who are the leaders that can make this impact?
The 12th Malaysia Plan (12MP), unveiled in September, shows the government’s intention and aspiration to enhance green mobility to achieve low-carbon nation status. This is good news for climate action and sustainability in Malaysia. Incentives for local manufacturers producing EVs are being reviewed, incentives for consumers purchasing EVs are being discussed, and the general transition to a more sustainable transport system is being promoted.
With legislative mechanisms and policies, government leadership as an enabling force is intended to catalyse collaboration and innovation among the private, public, industry and governmental sectors. The central government’s master plan also encourages alignment by state-level policies, and that inclusivity will be necessary to ensure all of society can be a part of this.
Major automakers are making bold commitments and pledges in their EV targets for this decade. Ford Motor Co has a 40% target of EVs by 2030, while Volkswagen AG goes as far beyond the pack as to expect half of its US sales and 70% of its European sales to be EVs by 2030. Such competition will help drive up innovation and drive down EV prices. These targets by automotive manufacturers must be accompanied by significant capital investment, research and development, and management attention — to come close to accomplishing the goals set out.
The challenges for manufacturers include battery development and manufacturing, semiconductor chip availability and reaping economies of scale in EV production. Technology development plays a crucial role — as EVs must improve their appeal to certain market segments, for example, by offering batteries that can last longer and charge faster. EVs are becoming less expensive, and over the lifetime of owning an EV versus a conventional ICE vehicle, there are significant savings in maintenance and operational costs.
If EVs are powered with electricity from renewable sources such as solar and wind energy, then vehicle carbon emissions per kilometre will be dramatically reduced compared to ICE engines. This leads to a bigger question: What are the opportunities for us to lower our individual emissions from the transport choices we make?
Society as the leader
Choosing an EV is becoming an increasingly attractive solution for consumers. EV product appeal, complemented by incentives to purchase, subsidies to maintain and operate, and a charging-station infrastructure that is accessible, will drive sales growth for EVs. However, just replacing all ICE vehicles with EVs will not address all our transport challenges. Beyond encouraging EVs over ICE vehicles, society must also consider citizen behaviour and the larger transport networks that complement automobiles.
Rather than choosing to own an automobile, whether electric powered or not, there is an increasing demand in society for broader sustainable transport services. For non-vehicle owners who rely on ride-shares, for example, we might consider how they can encourage the further “greening” of transport. Having ride-sharing apps that allow the choice to ride only in electric vehicles, for example, might speed the transition to EVs. Additionally, ride-sharing apps that add a “carbon price” of fuel in ride-shares could empower riders to make better and more sustainable choices.
Individual citizens need to be transformation leaders — each in their own way — raising their consciousness about climate risk and pushing individual, professional and institutional contributions towards a common agenda of carbon reduction. The only way forward is through active discussions as we all strengthen the dynamic processes that lead us to continuous improvement.
Charles H Fine is the founding president and dean of Asia School of Business and co-author of Faster, Smarter, Greener: The Future of the Car and Urban Mobility