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Podcast February 16, 2022

Tell Me How: Can Electric Vehicles and Heat Pumps Reduce Emissions Despite the Energy Source? 

View all episodes on our Tell Me How: The Infrastructure Podcast Series homepage

In this podcast, we discuss how the adoption of electric vehicles and heat pumps can reduce GHG emissions in different countries under various assumptions about the energy mix/ source and consider all emissions from their production and use.

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Roumeen Islam: This is the World Bank’s Infrastructure podcast. In today's episode, we discuss the impact of electric vehicles and electric heat pumps on greenhouse gas emissions. Remember to listen to the key messages at the end.

. Though it's still a small part of the total cart stock, electric vehicles accounted for two thirds of new electric car registrations in 2020. China with four and a half million electric cars has the largest fleet by far, though in 2020 Europe had the largest annual increase, says the IEA, and their stock has reached 3.2 million.

And there are many models available, about 370 or more worldwide. And they're increasing really fast year by year. There are even heavy-duty electric trucks on offer. At the same time, governments are offering financial and other incentives to purchase them, to meet their climate agendas. And it's not just vehicles, even heat pumps using electricity can help cut emissions.

How much will this rush to electrify transport and maybe even heating help the climate agenda? Let's find out.


Good morning and welcome. I am Roumeen Islam, host of Tell Me How and today's guest is Florian Knobloch, who is a fellow at the Center for Environment, Energy and Natural Resource Governance at the University of Cambridge.

Florian has previously worked as a researcher and lecturer at the Environmental Science Department of Radboud University at the Netherlands as well, and has done research on a variety of countries around the world. Welcome Florian.

Florian Knobloch: Thanks for having me, Roumeen.

Roumeen Islam: It's very nice to have you with us. So, Florian, you've done research on emissions from electric vehicles, which I shall refer to as EVs from now on, and heat pumps under different climate policy and energy mix scenarios with quite pertinent findings for policy makers.

Can we first start with why you looked into this question?

Florian Knobloch: Sure. The policy strategies for achieving this can be summarized as “Electrifying Everything”.

This is to replace fuel-based cars and heating systems with electric cars and electric heat pumps, which both can be powered by a clean electricity grid. However, since today, electricity generation still involves using fossil fuels. It is not clear where and when electric cars and heat pumps can effectively reduce overall emissions with today's electricity grid.

And principally, both electric cars and heat pumps should reduce emissions even when electricity is still produced with fossil fuels, simply due to their very high energy efficiency. However, many studies claim that electrification could still increase emissions due to indirect emissions from the production of cars and batteries.

There's a lot of background research in these areas, often highly specialized. There's also a lot of misleading information out there on this topic. So, we wanted to provide a clear answer, which is useful for policymakers, which need to decide on energy and climate policy and their countries. So, we take all the information available and use it to answer these important questions.

Roumeen Islam: You said you wanted to provide a clear answer, but then let's get to the precise question that you were seeking to answer on the research. And let's just go one more time over why this is an important policy question. The precise question you're asking.

Florian Knobloch: If electricity grids first have to get cleaner for the “Electrify Everything” strategy to be beneficial, encouraging things like EVs might not have the intended effect on overall emissions. There's the question. To provide clearer answers to this question our team did the math to find out how green EVs and heat pumps for home heating are in different countries now and in the future,

Roumeen Islam: What percentage of emissions are accounted for by road transport and residential heating? I'm trying to understand how important they are or potentially could be in the climate policy agenda if we look simply at the size of their emissions.

Florian Knobloch: Quite important.

So, to put it into perspective, That makes electric vehicles and electric heat pumps essential to reducing global emissions and limit global warming.

Roumeen Islam: Thank you. I'm very glad that you mentioned those countries emissions as examples, because for me, it was hard to understand what the five gigatons of CO2 really meant and putting it in that context was good. By the way, CO2 is carbon dioxide emissions, I just wanted to clarify.

All right, but let's go to heat pumps. We talked a lot about heat pumps and how they can reduce emissions, but could you just explain a little bit what heat pumps are.

Florian Knobloch: Heat pumps can be used for heating homes. Instead of using gas or oil heating systems, heat pumps use electricity and heat exchange systems, which are similar in principle to those found in your fridge or air conditioner. Essentially, they extract heat from the environment from either the air or the ground. This process is extremely energy efficient, even compared to high efficiency gas heating systems, because heat pumps extract heat from the environment they can turn one unit of electricity into five or more units of heat.

This works even at very low outside temperatures.

Roumeen Islam: Could you then please explain what is meant by a life-cycle analysis and why such an analysis is important?

Florian Knobloch: Yes, Roumeen. We carried out a full lifecycle assessment of manufacturing ongoing energy use. What this means is that we did not only calculate the greenhouse gas emissions from using cars and heating systems.

Our calculations also include all emissions from the production chain and also from waste processing. This is quite important because On the other hand, the extraction and refining of fossil fuels also causes emissions, around a quarter of the emissions from burning the fuels. These so-called “upstream emissions” are also included in our calculations.

Roumeen Islam: That's very good to hear because of course it is important to think about the entire life-cycle emissions. I see that now that you've explained what you're calculating. So, could you explain, how is your research adding to the existing research that's there? Are there no other papers that have looked at lifecycle emissions, for example?

Florian Knobloch: There are plenty of papers, but our research is different in three very relevant ways. First, most existing studies focus either on one or mostly a few regions, or they look at global averages. Both is not very useful for policymakers.

Our study covers the whole world while also providing a detailed analysis for 59 separate world regions. Second, almost all studies on EVs are limited to the present situation, but what we are mostly interested in is the future. So, our study looks into the future and projects results onto 2050, also including worst case scenarios.

Third, we do not restrict our analysis to specific car models. We look at the whole range of cars, which are available in the market. So overall, our study is the first to really provide a comprehensive overview.

Roumeen Islam: So, with all this information if we go back to your research question, how do you go about answering such a complex question?

You've got so many different aspects to the issue.

Florian Knobloch: Okay. So, the aim was to examine the emissions of different types of vehicles and heating options now and in the future. For this, we use two things, lots of data and the computer model. Regarding data, we took the most up-to-date bottom-up estimates of life cycle emissions from producing cars of different types and also from the production and transport of the fuels used.

We have also used tons of data on the power plants, running grids in different countries, as well as data on the types of vehicles and home heating methods used. Importantly, we've run the numbers for a whole range of cars and heating systems. So not only for one specific and petrol cars, but we looked at the whole range of cars, which are available in the market.

Roumeen Islam: Luxury cars, Volkswagen, Rolls Royce, Porsche, everything, right?

Florian Knobloch: Exactly. They're all in there. We do not only look at the Tesla Model 3 and compare it to a Volkswagen Golf, but we compare the whole range of petrol cars with the whole range of electric cars. And as a first step, we did this for the present situation.

Then as a next step, we plugged all this data to a big computer model of the global economy with a very detailed representation of the energy system. This model simulates future changes in the electricity system. And it also simulates the uptake of cars and heating systems from 2015, up to 2050. So, what kind of technologies do people choose?

Do they choose EVs or other cars and will investors choose coal power plants or solar PV?

Roumeen Islam: You had mentioned that you do this analysis for 59 regions around the world. How do you distinguish these regions as you call them, do they differ substantially in their initial conditions? Do they differ in their expected patterns of growth or energy use and car use for example?

Florian Knobloch: They differ quite substantially. So, in most cases, what we refer to as regions here are simply countries, and all countries are different, obviously. The model we use was originally developed for the European Commission. So, each European country is represented as an individual region. In addition, also most G 20 countries are also represented as individual regions.

As the model focuses on energy and climate areas with lower energy use and emissions are combined into one region such as parts of Africa or central Asia. This has also to do with a lack of data availability for some parts of the world. And of course, we also built in projections for how demand for transport in different regions rises over time, such as in India, where we project a very fast increase in private car use over the next decades.

Roumeen Islam: If you have got some cases where countries are grouped together and others, where you just look at individual countries, obviously you have much more refined information on those countries where you're looking at the individual country, but there are other parts of the world that are going to grow probably a lot more and a lot faster in the demand for cars. And you have a way of building that in or not?

Florian Knobloch: Yes, of course, we also built end projections for how demand for transport in different regions rises over time. For example, India, today only accounts for a small fraction of the global demand for private car transport. In the future, we project a very sharp increase in car use in India. We do that by means of econometric analysis. So, we try to project future demand for transport based on future projections for income per person, GDP per capita, fewer prices, things like that.

Roumeen Islam: Okay. That clarifies things a lot. So let me ask you a bit more about the technology uptake that you mentioned earlier.

There's a lot of uncertainty about the direction of technological change. So how do you account for this technological change and technology adoption?

Florian Knobloch: It is true that technological change is quite uncertain, but it also follows certain patterns and regularities which can be used for simulating its future direction.

There's strong path dependence in technological change. There's plenty of evidence from history, which shows us that technology change usually follows an S shaped pattern. New technologies start growing very slowly in the beginning before they eventually gain momentum and then increase their market shares exponentially until everyone then has the new technology, and the curve flattens.

It's like the new iPhone at the beginning of one or two friends who have the iPhone. Suddenly everyone wants to get one. And all of a sudden everyone has one, and growth stops.

Roumeen Islam: So, Florian, could you speak a bit about the global scenarios you estimate and how they were chosen.

Florian Knobloch: Yeah, sure. Roumeen. We've looked into three different scenarios.

So, the first scenario simply sees a continuation of current trends of technology uptake. The electricity grid, and this scenario becomes somewhat cleaner, but not a lot. Only 60% by 2050, in terms of emissions per kilowatt hour of electricity. Electric vehicles in this scenario grow modestly to about 19% of rail transportation by 2050 and heat pumps hit 16% of home heating demand.

Roumeen Islam: So those aren't very large percentages.

Florian Knobloch: No, that's like just a continuation of what we see already happening today. In the second scenario we represent emission reduction policies all over the world, aiming to be roughly Paris aligned. These policies wouldn't make the electricity grid 74% cleaner by 2050, push EVs up to half of road miles by 2050, and heat pumps up to over a third of home heating.

Then we have a third scenario which serves as a worst-case analysis and essentially is a mismatched combination of the first two scenarios. So, we assume very strong policies, boosting EVs and heat pump use, but no policies to clean up the electricity grid. That test whoever electrify everything could backfire and such a worst-case combination of policies.

Roumeen Islam: Those are three very interesting scenarios certainly to look at now. Could you tell us your main results? Maybe you mentioned some on average, what the result shows you are globally and then differences across the regions. And if you could explain differences when you explain your results and then, maybe you can start with electric vehicles and then go on to heat pumps.

Florian Knobloch: So, first things first, we find that Therefore, our results show that already

Averaged over the globe EVs already represent about 31% emission-saving per kilometer and heat pumps are a 35% saving per unit of heating.

Roumeen Islam: Why is it that EVs can reduce emissions even if the grid relies heavily on fossil fuels?

Florian Knobloch: So

This is possible because internal combustion engines are less efficient than the large turbines used in power stations. So, it's simply a relative efficiency advantage of electric technologies. The average break point for that is around 1,000 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour of electricity, which is roughly the efficiency of the oldest and dirtiest coal power plants we have.

So as long as the grid is slightly cleaner than that, EVs should reduce emissions compared to petrol cars.

Roumeen Islam: Okay. Then let's go to the pattern of emissions found across countries. Could you speak about that?

Florian Knobloch: Sure.

These 95% include all of Europe, the US, China, Brazil, Indonesia, Nigeria, and essentially most other places around the globe. The only few exceptions are places like India, the Czech Republic and Poland, where electricity generation is still mostly based on coal. However, these regions together account for only 5% of global demand.

Roumeen Islam: That's now at the present time. That's at the present time and it's not just three, three countries. There are a few more, right?

Florian Knobloch: It's five or six regions in total. It's also like Estonia, I think. But yeah, small countries. What's also important to know is that there are also best-case examples like Sweden and France, which produced electricity from renewables and nuclear and where its lifetime emissions from EVs and heat pumps are up to 70% lower already.

Roumeen Islam: Now I note that you said they're not, 90% lower, so I'm assuming this has something to do with these being life cycle emissions, because there are, we talked about, driving cars, but then there's also the production of cars, but we'll get to this later.

How do you expect these numbers to change in the future?

Florian Knobloch: On the other side, for a fair comparison, we also need to consider continued progress on efficiency for fossil fuel powered cars and heating systems, as well as very electric counterparts.

So, technology will improve in the future. But even when fossil fuel powered cars become more efficient than they are today, emissions of fuel burning cars are always unavoidable. So, you might have a more efficient petrol car, but it still will burn fossil fuels. There's no way around that. As a result, in a few years, even inefficient electric cars will be less emission intensive than the most up-to-date and most efficient new petrol cars.

This is true for most countries, as electricity generation is expected to be less carbon intensive than it is today.

Roumeen Islam: All right. So how much could global emissions fall in total? Give me a number or a percentage.

Florian Knobloch: Obviously this depends on the number of electric cars in the street, , which to give you some idea what this means is equivalent to the total annual CO2 emissions of Russia today.

Roumeen Islam: So, when you say every second car in the streets could be electric, this is in which scenario that you're modeling?

Florian Knobloch: This is in the climate policy scenario where policies are being implemented for pushing EVs. So even in that scenario, we think that there will still be petrol cars in 2050 and some countries who have largely electric cars, like the European union or United States, but in other parts of the world, it's perhaps not so realistic that you only have electric cars even in such a scenario.

Roumeen Islam: So, what kind of emission reduction could be achieved by heat pumps?

Florian Knobloch: Our results for heat pumps are actually quite similar to our results for electric vehicles. This means already

And this is also true for 95% of the world in terms of heating demand. , that they have a very high share of renewables in the grid overall around the world.

Roumeen Islam: Okay, thank you for explaining your results. What you think the implications are for policy?

Florian Knobloch: The implications for policy are quite clear.

In other words,

Roumeen Islam: Even if we look at life cycle emissions, their production.

Florian Knobloch: Exactly everything included cradle to grave, electric vehicles and electric heat pumps are always better in terms of emissions, compared to fossil fuel technologies already today.

So, considering that

Roumeen Islam: It's a no regret policy. Now, this sounds too good to be true. Is there a drawback?

Florian Knobloch: There’s always a drawback. As time goes on, emissions from manufacturing electric vehicles account for ever larger share of total lifecycle emissions.

So, as the grid becomes cleaner, emissions from electricity use will decrease, but the shelf production emissions is projected to grow from around 25% of total road transport emissions today, to almost 40% in 2050.

Roumeen Islam: That’s quite a bit of growth.

Florian Knobloch: Yeah, it is. So,

Roumeen Islam: So, we should be driving less then?

Florian Knobloch: Yeah. So,

This means promoting things like car sharing, cycling, or public transport, perhaps combined with regulations on the energy efficiency of electric vehicles.

Roumeen Islam: Thank you very much Florian. That was really illuminating. Thank you.

Florian Knobloch: It was a pleasure talking with you Roumeen.

Roumeen Islam: It was a pleasure talking to you.

Well, listeners, what did we learn today? Firstly, Even if energy sources remained as they are today, and even if no additional climate policies are adopted. Only countries with the dirtiest fossil fuel sources wouldn't gain as much.



Thank you and bye for now.


Net emission reductions from electric cars and heat pumps in 59 world regions overtime or