China plans to ban gas and diesel cars — and other signs electric vehicles will conquer the world

On Saturday, a Chinese official told the audience at an auto forum in Tianjin that the government is working on a timetable to end “production and sales of traditional energy vehicles,” i.e., gasoline and diesel cars, according to accounts from the Xinhua News Agency. Regulators have begun the “relevant research,” and the policy will be implemented “in the near future.”

Details are somewhat sketchy, but it appears the government plans to shift away from the massive research and consumer subsidies of recent years to something like a cap-and-trade program for fuel economy and emissions, with automakers facing rising quotas but tradable credits providing some compliance flexibility.

It’s not a concrete policy yet; we’ll have to see how it’s implemented. But for a moment, look beyond the policy to the optics. This is the world’s largest car market — responsible for around 30 percent of global passenger vehicle sales — announcing an imminent end to fossil fuel cars. That’s a big, big deal.

It is just one of many remarkable developments around EVs recently. The past year has seen trumpet blast after trumpet blast heralding the arrival of an EV revolution — sooner than most analysts expected.

How fast that revolution will unfold is the source of much dispute and uncertainty. And it matters a great deal to oil demand, electricity demand, greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, and global trade flows.

In many ways, questions around EVs parallel questions around renewable energy. They have both been consistently underestimated. If they continue beating expectations, revolution is nigh. But there’s also a lot of hype, wildly conflicting projections, and plenty of risks and pitfalls ahead.

EVs, charging
The future liberals want.

So let’s take a look at a few recent developments.

National fossil fuel vehicle bans are catching on

China is only the latest country to announce its intention to phase out the production and sale of gas and diesel vehicles altogether.

  • Last year, the Dutch parliament voted through a motion to end all gas and diesel car sales by 2025 (it still has to go through the Dutch senate).
  • In June, India announced that it would end sales of gas and diesel cars by 2030.
  • In June, Norway agreed to end sales of gas and diesel cars by 2025. (Norway leads the world in EVs — almost 40 percent of its newly registered vehicles were hybrid, electric, or hydrogen in 2017.)
  • In July, France announced it would end sales of gas and diesel cars by 2040.
  • In July, Britain announced it would end sales of gas and diesel cars by 2040.
  • In August, German Chancellor Angela Merkel hinted that her country would follow suit. “I cannot name an exact year yet,” she said, “but the approach is right, because if we quickly invest in more charging infrastructure and technology for electric cars, a general changeover will be structurally possible.”
  • This month, the Scottish government announced it would phase out gas and diesel cars by 2032.
  • Of course, dozens of other countries and states/provinces have their own targets for EVs. (The International Energy Agency’s Global EV Outlook has a good overview.)

Many of these promises are vague or lack implementation plans, and all could be overturned by subsequent governments, but they all carry a clear message. While there are all sorts of clever EV support policies, outright bans carry a unique political and market-moving weight — especially in rapidly expanding markets like China and India.