Why a measured transition to electric vehicles would benefit the US

A recent research paper, examines some of the challenges in transitioning from internal combustion engine vehicles to EVs.



Climate plans are the order of the day in the presidential primary campaign because carbon pollution is a global threat of unique proportions. But it’s worth asking whether candidates’ plans are based in the reality of the climate, the economy, and the election.

All three dimensions must come together for any climate plan to achieve its goals – and this is especially true when the subject is electric vehicles.

There is no point in putting forward an EV plan that is so aggressive that it cannot be implemented even under the most auspicious economic circumstances. Nor is there a point in advancing an EV plan that would not yield significant climate benefits. And, if such a plan might hurt a candidate’s chances in the election, it would be worse than pointless.



Following the lead of Governor Jay Inslee, who dropped out of the race earlier this fall, Senators Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren said they would require all passenger cars sold in the United States to be zero-emissions by 2030, while Senator Kamala Harris and Mayor Pete Buttigieg set a 2035 deadline.

In a recent research paper, I examined some of the challenges in transitioning from internal combustion engine vehicles to EVs. I think these Democratic candidates might want to give themselves some wiggle room to pursue a more measured approach – for environmental, economic and political reasons.

A momentous transition
Let’s look at the market and the industry first. The most aggressive expert forecasts by BloombergNEF foresee only 57% of global auto sales being electric by 2040. The auto industry and the associated infrastructure are so enormous that they simply can’t be transformed much more quickly.

The world’s largest manufacturing supply chain must be entirely rebuilt, and a charging network put in place that will meet EV drivers’ needs without disrupting the grid. American consumers also have to learn to love EVs, and that will take time.

Illustration-courtesy-of-the-authors,-edited-by-MIT-News
A battery pack for the Chevy Bolt. Although the move to electric vehicles like the Bolt will create jobs related to electric components, the net effect is expected to be fewer jobs for auto workers (AP Photo/Duane Burleson).

Second, even if the EV transition were to move as rapidly as the most aggressive plans call for, it would not necessarily maximize benefits for the climate.

The climate advantage of an EV relative to a car with an internal combustion engine over its life cycle depends not only on the fuels used to generate the electricity it runs on, but also on emissions created during manufacturing. An EV charged by West Virginia’s coal-heavy system today, for instance, would actually emit more greenhouse gases than a hybrid gasoline-electric car, according to a recent MIT study.

The same study points out that because most EV batteries today are sourced from Asia, a lot of coal is likely to be burnt to make them.

Then, there’s the question of a just transition for workers. Electric cars don’t need engines, transmissions or fuel systems, which together provide tens of thousands of well-paying U.S. manufacturing jobs today. And EVs are projected to reduce assembly plant labor hours by 30%.

While the transition will create some new jobs, the gains are expected to be far fewer than the losses; a German study of the issue concluded that in the most likely scenario, in which EVs and plug-in hybrids make up 40% of production in 2030, 100,000 jobs in the drive train sector (or about 12% of all German auto jobs) would be eliminated, while just 25,000 would be created. In addition, the skills needed in the auto industry are shifting along with the power train.

Many workers who would be displaced by a rapid transition lack the electronic and digital skills that EV manufacturing will demand.

Last, the political reality is that unrealistic timelines for the transition could alienate key voters in battleground states. The jobs that are most at risk are concentrated in the industrial Midwest, especially in Michigan and Ohio, battleground states that helped put President Trump over the top in 2016.

A slightly slower revolution

None of these considerations should deter the candidates from offering climate plans that meet the extraordinary challenge humanity faces. Whoever wins the U.S. presidency in November 2020 must accept the essential fact that climate change is not only real, but accelerating, with devastating consequences for society and the environment.

The United States must play a leading role if climate change is to be halted, and that will require a massive national effort that includes electrifying transportation, decarbonizing electricity and much more.

Given the enormity of the task, and the risk of backlash if policy gets too far ahead of public sentiment, getting to net-zero in the transportation sector by 2050 – along with all of the other sectors – should be our goal. An EV transition that moves at a measured pace will be best for workers, the climate, and even the candidates themselves.

This article was written by David M. Hart, Professor of Public Policy, George Mason University.

David M. Hart receives funding from the Spitzer Trust. He is the director of the clean energy innovation policy program at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation and co-chair of the Innovation Policy Forum at the National Academies.

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  1. Hi Guys,

    Interesting read, but did anyone notice that Mr Hart’s proposal and plea of extending the transition to renewable energy and EV conversions to meet a 2050 deadline exactly corresponds to reports that the worlds oil supply will be depleted and no longer viable to meet world energy demands, falls on the year 2050 like in his reports. Coincidence I think not. This is big oil research data being used to slow the world’s early adoption of renewable energy so they can extract as much money out of our depleting oil supply as possible before we are forced to adopt alternative energy sources to keep up with energy demands. This article speaks to making as much profit as possible before doing the right thing and transitioning to environmentally friendly solutions quickly and efficiently. But that means 30 more years of damage to the world’s environment. And no one knows if we will even survive 10 more years of environmental damage as ice packs rapidly disappear in Iceland and the arctic oceans. Entire continents of melting ice all over the world is not good.

    Will there be disruption of business sectors and the people who work in them. Of course, 10 years from now and even 30 years from now will be the same disruption. Look at what Rockefeller’s oil and Ford’s horseless carriage did to the horse and buggy industry and the people who made them, and all the ranchers who supplied the horses. Not to mention the upkeep and management of the animals involved by people with jobs. This is no different. People are resilient to meet the challenges. Moving forward to an environmentally friendly world and doing the right thing for future generations will take change, management, planning, and training of new jobs beyond what little Mr Hart mentions.

    Let’s move forward with transitioning to a cleaner environment as quickly as possible. We have the proven technology to do it. Now we need the will to do it. I believe people the world over are ready for the environment friendly changes now. And willing to make the sacrifices necessary to remain healthy, strong for themselves and their children’s future with sustainable renewable energy and clean solutions in transportation, manufacturing, and energy generation the world over. It is our environment for the good of people everywhere. Let’s put on a united effort to clean it up together now.

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