Electric Vehicles Face Challenging Goal of Reducing Transportation Emissions

Electric vehicles (EVs) represent a promising step towards lowering greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector—but a new report finds that EVs will continue to play a small part in emissions reductions over the next five years with larger contributions in the decade after.


Dec. 8, 2020

News Type

Press Release

The transportation sector, which accounts for roughly 28% of the United States’s annual greenhouse gas emissions, seems primed for revolution as the electric vehicle (EV) market grows.

Although EVs offer a promising off-ramp from smoggy highways and climbing global temperatures, a new report by Resources for the Future finds that this technology alone is not a silver bullet to reduce the country’s emissions in the near future. A transition to EVs will be gradual, and represents an important component of long range reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

The new report by RFF University Fellow Benjamin Leard and Senior Fellow Virginia McConnell details EVs’ role in decarbonizing the US transportation sector. The researchers find that reducing transportation emissions over the next five years cannot be reliant on EVs, as the vast majority of Americans own gas-powered vehicles and have no immediate plans to replace them.

“A large majority of US households own and operate gasoline vehicles,” Leard said. “It will take time for these households to replace the vehicles they own now, and even then the replacements may not be electric. We expect to have gasoline vehicles on the road for several decades.”

Key Findings

  • Despite exponential growth, EVs still represent only 2 to 3% of the annual new-vehicle market share.
  • Passenger vehicle fleets take approximately 20 years to turn over, and truck fleets 25 years. Even under optimistic forecasts, the transition to EVs will be gradual.
  • New EV sales will have a limited impact on overall emissions by 2025 but will be increasingly important in the following decades. Continued improvements in gasoline vehicle fuel economy are critical to reduce GHG emissions during this long-term transition.
  • There are still barriers to more widespread adoption of EVs, including vehicle cost—especially for larger vehicles—and public charging technology and availability.
  • Government policies and continued innovation will be important for accelerating the transition to EVs.

So what could increase the rate of EV adoption and vehicle turnover? The report describes existing policies which have been instrumental in initiating the transition to EVs, and discusses how these policies can be modified to improve the incentives they provide. The authors argue that the federal tax credit should be revised, that federal greenhouse gas and fuel economy standards should be strengthened, and federal and state partnership should be used to improve public EV infrastructure. They also discuss other incentives and policies at both the state and federal level to speed up the rate at which new, climate-conscious vehicles hit the road.

“To meet long-term goals, we need short-term policies that provide incentives to both consumers and manufacturers to respectively purchase and manufacture EVs,” McConnell said. “Building on this, a carbon tax or a gasoline tax—implemented with other policies—could also be effective.”

Click on the link or the button below to read the report, Progress and Potential for Electric Vehicles to Reduce Carbon Emissions, by RFF University Fellow Benjamin Leard and Senior Fellow Virginia McConnell.

Resources for the Future (RFF) is an independent, nonprofit research institution in Washington, DC. Its mission is to improve environmental, energy, and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement. RFF is committed to being the most widely trusted source of research insights and policy solutions leading to a healthy environment and a thriving economy.

Unless otherwise stated, the views expressed here are those of the individual authors and may differ from those of other RFF experts, its officers, or its directors. RFF does not take positions on specific legislative proposals.

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