A mass shift toward electric transport is not enough to bring global transportation emissions in line with the targets in the 2015 Paris Agreement, according to a new study that calls for aggressive “degrowth”— encompassing radical mobility shifts—to keep warming below 2°C.
In an op ed for The Ecologist, biophysical economist Margarita Mediavilla of Spain’s University of Valladolid argues that the current tendency for policy-makers to view widespread electrification—and especially the electric car—as a panacea for the climate crisis is out of sync with the reality of how energy works in the global economy.
“If economic activity continues to grow, energy demand will almost inevitably rise, too, as the complete decoupling of economic activity from energy consumption has not occurred and is unlikely to occur in the future,” she writes.
Describing a recent study her team conducted using MEDEAS-World, an EU-funded model that connects energy, economy, and environment through biophysical economics, Mediavilla argues that climate action policies like the European Green Deal will run badly aground on the assumption that deep cuts in transportation emissions can be delivered by the mass replacement of fossil fuel vehicles with EVs. Running the numbers, Mediavilla argues that a one-to-one replacement without changing mobility patterns will only achieve a 15% reduction in global transportation emissions by 2050—a far cry from the 80% reduction required to avoid overshooting the Paris targets.
More ambitious mobility changes—Mediavilla and her team modelled a mix of 60% electric motorcycles, 20% electric bicycles, and 8% “non-motorized modes,” leaving only 12% four-wheeled EVs—reduced emissions by only 30%.
According to Mediavilla, this disappointing result owes in part “to the difficulties encountered by freight transport, aviation, and shipping in finding electric alternatives,” but is more attributable “to the rebound effect caused by the dynamics of economic growth.”
Arguing that there is unlikely to be a “complete decoupling” of energy consumption and economic activity, Mediavilla warns that “growth will always go hand in hand with increased energy demand.” What will bring transport emissions down to within 10% of the 90% target envisioned by the European Green Deal is a three-pronged shift: widespread e-bike uptake, plus “a drastic reduction in demand for transport (especially air transport),” plus “a stabilization of world economic activity at a level 23% lower than present.”
Highlighting the vexed connection between electrification and resource depletion, Mediavilla also notes that “if recycling rates do not grow enormously by 2050, the reserves of copper, lithium, nickel, and manganese in existing mines will be exhausted.” The new mines dug to acquire these resources will also will have “devastating repercussions on water, biodiversity, and the human rights of local communities.”
While the notion of degrowth will conjure frightening images “of recession and, worse, even depression,” says Mediavilla, society is still in desperate need of “new theories and economic models that accept the natural world as truly finite and respect its limits.” While “unmanaged economic contraction”—like that happening courtesy of the pandemic—hurts individuals and societies (and even the environment, she maintains that degrowth done effectively can be a deliberately chosen path toward a more equitable and sustainable world.
“Degrowth is a managed economic contraction in which policies and systems are put in place that simultaneously maximize human well-being, achieve social justice, and protect the natural world upon which all this depends,” she writes.