When I talk about exponential growth in clean transportation—or say anything optimistic about climate change—the pessimists baulk. C’mon, they say, the overwhelming majority of our electricity comes from fossil fuels. Demand for oil is still growing. Electric vehicles (EVs) are a miniscule percentage of cars sold. What good can a few wealthy Tesla owners possibly do for the environment?
To pessimists, the EV revolution seems underwhelming. That’s because they underestimate the power of exponential growth.
Optimists don’t demand instant results from innovation. Rather, they recognize how sudden technological transformation can be. Societies won’t register the full potential of EVs until moments before they sweep gasoline cars into the dustbin of history.
What Exponential Growth Really Means
People say that innovations like the Internet, smartphone and social media grew “exponentially” because they radically changed our lives within a few years of appearing. But what do we mean by “exponential”? The late physics professor Al Bartlett used to demonstrate the shocking power of exponential growth very clearly.
Imagine a glass with one bacterium that divides into two bacteria every minute. In one hour, that doubling process fills the glass. If you started the process at 11 am, at what time would the glass be half full?
Many people assume 11:30 am. In reality, the glass is only half full at 11:59 am. At 11:58, it’s 25% full, and at 11:55, it’s only 3% full! 97% seems like business as usual, with no tipping point in sight. The progress seems unimpressive until the moment the bacteria become ubiquitous. The same is likely true of electric vehicles.
Your Individual Choice and Society’s
Today, EVs represent less than half a percentage of the global vehicle fleet. But BloombergNEF predicts that by 2040, EVs will account for more than half of all passenger and light commercial vehicles sales. Optimists argue that this is an underestimation.
EVs could become less expensive than their combustion-engine equivalents in just three to five years because the cost of lithium-ion batteries is falling so rapidly. That could cause a tipping point, accelerated by the fact that traditional gasoline cars cannot meet the tightening environmental regulations being adopted worldwide. People who already drive EVs tout not only their eco-friendliness but also their superior performance and lower maintenance requirements.
Yet, your individual choice to buy EVs is not enough to clean our transportation system anytime soon. Just because EVs don’t burn gasoline, that doesn’t mean they make transportation “clean.” A Tesla charged in China or Pennsylvania is a coal-powered car. Over its lifetime, it may even cause more CO2 emissions than a gasoline-powered equivalent. Not only that, manufacturing an EV may produce more CO2 than producing a conventional vehicle.
But a Tesla charged in Norway, British Columbia or France would emit less than half the C02 of a conventional vehicle over its lifetime, as these countries overwhelmingly use low carbon or renewable energy sources for electricity.
Simply put, an EV is only as clean as the energy ecosystem in which it drives. Exponential growth in EV sales is just one step in reducing emissions. The energy transition depends on individuals, innovators, businesses, policymakers and regulators giving this “cleantech bacterium” the nourishment for exponential growth. You as a consumer may choose a Tesla, but our societies need to decide whether that Tesla will charge on fossil fuels or renewables.
What if for EVs, it is 11:55 in Professor Bartlett’s glass?
Every carmaker has an EV on the market or in the pipeline. In 2019, the Tesla 3 was the best-selling car in the Netherlands. You read that correctly. Not just the best-selling EV—the best-selling car! EV demand is rising in France, Germany, the UK and Scandinavia too. China, the world’s largest EV market, has no major players in the conventional car industry, so its ambitious EV startups face no resistance from entrenched interests. They may leapfrog the gasoline vehicle industry and beat even Tesla to producing a truly affordable, global EV brand. Noon is near.
Optimists recognize that to get from 11:55 to noon—from niche market to global norm — we need to forge an alignment among consumers, businesses and governments. Soon, the leading carmakers could indeed bring the sticker price of a mid-size EV below that of an equivalent combustion-engine vehicle. Consumers, well aware of climate change, are eager to buy EVs that are better, cleaner and cheaper than gasoline cars.
Meanwhile, governments continue to subsidize fossil fuel operations, converting trillions of taxpayer dollars into stranded assets. The money governments waste on fossil fuels could instead fuel the exponential growth of clean EVs. That would entail more focus on renewables and, perhaps within a decade, fusion energy as the fuel sources of choice in electricity systems. That would also mean building out charging infrastructure so that EV owners could fill up their vehicles anywhere, anytime. Are our politicians listening?
Join the Optimists
Pessimists can’t see the horizon of our climate crisis. I hope that by illuminating the exponential growth of EVs, we swell the ranks of optimists — and spur action.
11:55 is the moment for individuals and businesses to speak up. 11:55 is also the moment for visionary policymakers to push clean transportation over the tipping point with tax incentives, public charging infrastructure and accountability to the Paris Agreement.
The 2020s are the decisive decade in our climate emergency. We may not witness the impact of our individual actions today or tomorrow. We may not see the world’s nations work collectively for our greater good today or tomorrow. But there is a point where individual choice and societal priorities will intersect. For those who wonder how soon the gasoline car will be killed: the clock is about to hit noon.