The imperative to respond to climate change, as well as recent progress with electric vehicles and other alternatives to gasoline, has emboldened many countries to mandate a transition to zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs) through a ban on internal combustion engines. Great Britain plans to ban the sale of new gasoline or diesel cars by 2040 and completely ban their operation by 2050. France will also ban new gasoline burning cars by 2040, though hybrids will still be allowed. Several other countries have adopted or are considering similar policies. Legislation under consideration in California would also end the sale of new internal combustion cars by 2040.
The goal of phasing out gasoline-burning cars is important, but it is still a long way from being achieved. Without an affordable alternative ready to go, a ban on internal combustion engine vehicles is a symbolic gesture at best. Governments have better tools at their disposal: creating more flexible mandates, and enacting innovation policies that support research and development to bring alternatives to fruition, such as advanced batteries, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, and zero-carbon fuels.
Lessons From History: The Need for Affordable Alternative Technologies
History repeatedly demonstrates that technology bans or mandates are successful when the required technology is readily available and affordable. When the needed technology is not readily available, the ban or mandate fails. Consider some examples.
Let’s first look at some successes. The Montreal Protocol, the 1987 agreement to phase out ozone layer-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), was successful because alternatives to CFCs had already been developed and were already being deployed. Similarly, the phase-out of leaded gasoline from 1974 to 1996 also worked because it accelerated an industry trend that was already well underway.
Less successful, by contrast, was the 1970 Clean Air Act Amendments, which required a 90% reduction of tailpipe emissions. While the legislation did not explicitly mandate catalytic converters on all new cars, this was the only feasible approach to reducing emissions so dramatically. The program achieved its goal — catalytic converters for automobiles were developed and automobile emissions fell — though the legislation incurred a cost on industry that may have exceeded the environmental benefit by as much as a factor of 20 because the necessary technology was not available at a low cost. Furthermore, the nitrogen oxide target had to be postponed from 1975 until the three-way catalytic converter was invented in 1981.
Finally, an outright failure. The Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) mandates the blending of ethanol in the American gasoline supply. The RFS has been a costly boondoggle for the public and harmful to the environment. The Energy Policy Act of 2005, which created the RFS, also mandated that cellulosic biofuels be blended into the fuel supply. The mandate was for 5.5 billion gallons in 2017, but only 10 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol were actually blended, despite subsidies and loan guarantees on top of the mandate. Simply put, there is no economical way to produce cellulosic biofuel today with existing technology, and a mandate does not change this fact.
Zero-Emission Vehicles Are Great, But They’re Not Yet an Affordable Alternative
There are several major barriers to the widespread ZEV revolution that a ban would require, with affordability remaining a big challenge. Despite rapid progress this decade, electric vehicles — the most advanced ZEV option on the market today — still struggle to compete economically without subsidies. The cost of a lithium-ion battery back has fallen from $1000 per kilowatt-hour in 2010 to $200 in 2017, and could fall to $100 by 2025, a level at which the Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimates mass adoption will occur. Further down the line, solid state batteries and fuel cell vehicles also have potential to gain market share. While the trend is encouraging, there is no guarantee that EVs or any other technology will develop as hoped.
Additionally, there is a need for the infrastructure to support ZEVs, such as EV charging infrastructure or hydrogen filling stations. Since ZEVs are ultimately powered by electricity, power grids also need to be prepared to handle the growth of demand. Range anxiety and long charging times remain barriers to consumer acceptance.
With these challenges, most mainstream technology forecasts do not foresee widespread EV market dominance by 2040-50, and an ICE ban would thus require a major acceleration of deployment. Organizations like the International Energy Agency and Wood Mackenzie predict around 5-10% of light duty vehicles (LDVs) will be electric by 2030, while groups like Morgan Stanley and Bloomberg New Energy Finance predict 25-50% of LDVs will be electric by midcentury. (There are some optimistic outliers like RethinkX, which projects that by 2030, 95% of passenger-miles in the United States will be ridden in centralized fleets of autonomous, electric vehicles.)
Zero-emission vehicles are indeed a important tool to achieve the dramatic reduction in carbon dioxide emissions needed to reach any approximation of the goals set out in the Paris Agreement. Of world greenhouse gas emissions in 2014, 9% come from light duty vehicles. Electric vehicles, the dominant ZEV technology today, do indeed save emissions compared to gasoline cars, even if they are powered by fossil fuel electricity, and even accounting for indirect emissions such as manufacturing the battery pack. Other indirect pollutants from ZEVs, such as nitrous oxides, occur upstream — such as at the power plant — and are moved out of dense urban areas.
However, when the target date of the internal combustion engine ban is more than 20 years in the future, the ban only creates the illusion that something worthwhile has been accomplished. The bans will most likely fail, be very costly, or both if the technology for an affordable transition isn’t ready in time.
A Better Way Forward
If a blanket ban on gasoline-burning cars is likely to fail, what would be a better way to decarbonize automobiles? One approach is to make better use of existing technology, and another would focus on developing new technology.
A more flexible policy would allow a wider range of existing technological tools to reduce emissions. For instance, an overall gradually-declining emissions cap would promote further development of hybrids and plug-in hybrids. The US Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy has demonstrated that switching from an ICE to a hybrid brings almost as much environmental benefit as switching to an EV. Furthermore, improvements in fuel efficiency will reduce the emissions gap between gasoline-burning cars and the zero-emission alternatives, and today’s automobile fleet can also be decarbonized with tools such as solar fuels.
Since the technology for an affordable ZEV transition is not ready yet, innovation policies should be used to make it ready. Lithium-ion batteries, today the dominant zero-emission vehicle technology that is critical for many other uses as well, has enjoyed over a billion dollars of research and development in the United States. ZEVs are supported by the $7500 federal electric vehicle tax credit and a range of subsidies and infrastructure support in California. These investments have enabled today’s electric car revolution, but research needs to continue — especially into potentially superior but less developed technologies such as lithium-sulfur and aluminum-air batteries.
Banning internal combustion engines at a date well into the future gives us a way to feel like we are solving the climate change problem. Instead, we need to pursue policies that actually solve the problem.