A convoy of electric cars driven by members of the Global EV Alliance from a number of European countries, including Ireland, will drive across the continent this weekend to Glasgow to highlight the importance of electrifying all road vehicles by 2035.

The message they plan to deliver to the COP26 climate summit is that "all new cars and vans sold have a plug in by 2030 and that by 2035 all new cars and light duty vans being sold in these markets should be fully zero emission".

Electric cars are a hot topic in Ireland right now given the Government's target to have one million of them on the roads by 2030 in a bid to slash Ireland’s carbon emissions. This is because transport is Ireland’s second biggest producer of the harmful emissions driving climate change, while agriculture takes the top spot.

The Government has legislated to cut carbon emissions by 51% by 2030. It has also set a target to become carbon neutral by 2050.

According to the experts, EVs are currently the most sensible way of meeting Ireland’s targets on emissions. However, are they the best way to go? And does setting sales targets really help achieve the desired reductions?

A new tool developed by Brussels based environmental NGO, Transport & Environment, electric cars create three times less CO2 than driving a diesel or petrol car. This figure takes into account the entire life-cycle of the vehicles.

According to Energy Researcher at University College Cork, Dr Paul Deane, the production process of an electric car produces twice as many CO2 emissions as a fossil fuel powered car, which he says is mainly due to the use of Lithium-ion batteries.

The materials used and size of the battery all contribute to overall emissions during production, Dr Deane said.

However, he said the significant savings on emissions are to be made once the car is on the road.

Lithium-ion batteries for VW electric cars

This analysis is borne out by Transport & Environment which states that "in the worst case scenario, an electric car with a battery produced in China and driven in Poland still emits 22% less CO2 than diesel and 28% less than petrol, the tool shows. In the best-case scenario, an electric car with a battery produced in Sweden and driven in Sweden can emit 80% less CO2 than diesel and 81% less than petrol".

Dr Deane said the emissions benefit of electric cars change from country to country - depending on how clean the electricity grid is. He said that in Ireland last year about 40% of the electricity produced and consumed here was deemed to be clean.

He said: "In Ireland we have a relatively clean electricity grid. 40% of all of our energy last year came from clean renewables. Most of that was indigenous things like wind energy and that has a rippling effect into things like electric vehicles because the cleanness of the power system passes into the electric car and that results in very significant emissions benefits when driving an electric car."

"Recyclability is a big topic in the car industry. The lead acid battery is 95% recyclable. The Lithium-ion batteries that we use for modern technologies such as phones and cars are not"

Senior lecturer in Electrical and Electronic Engineering at UCC, Dr John Hayes, said the "greenness" of electric cars is gradually improving and manufacturing emissions are also reducing due to the development of new technologies.

Dr Hayes said: "The challenge for batteries right now would be sustainability and recyclability. Sustainability would be eliminating the elements such as cobalt and using cleaner, lower cost materials.

"Recyclability is a big topic in the car industry. The lead acid battery is 95% recyclable. The Lithium-ion batteries that we use for modern technologies such as phones and cars are not.

"But there is huge investment going into those batteries, so that by the middle of this decade we would have both more sustainable batteries and recyclable batteries up to a level that's probably above 80%."

He added that a further greening of Ireland’s electricity supply means the fuel being consumed by electric cars is also becoming greener, but there is no way of making diesel or petrol greener.

Both academics agree that electric cars can reduce our carbon emissions. But the pace at which Ireland is headed towards hitting its target of one million EVs by 2030 is making about as much headway as a commuter stuck on Dublin’s M50 in rush hour.

According to Managing Director of the Society of the Irish Motor Industry, Brian Cooke, Ireland sells on average 110,000 cars a year. So far this year 7,057 new electric cars have been registered in comparison to 2,954 on the same period in 2020. It might look like a sizeable increase, but is it enough to maintain momentum on targets?

There are approximately 22,000 electric cars on our roads, according to Mr Cooke. This means that just under 820,000 will need to be sold over the next nine years. Based on those figures it would mean that every car sold from now until 2030 will have to be an electric car, he said.

Mr Cooke said there was no getting away from the fact that the one million target remains challenging. "At the moment the new car market has been hovering around 110,000 a year, and that won’t be enough to get us there," he said. He said the industry would have to do its best to deliver vehicles, but also offer affordable price points, as well as incentive or taxation support from the Government to assist consumers in making the right decision.

"They will be the key factors in determining how close we can get to that million vehicles," he added.

Freight Manager with Transport and Environment, James Nix, said while electric cars were important, greater focus was also needed on other measures for public transport and logistics transport, including trucks and vans, to ensure that all road vehicles are decarbonised.

"When you put vans, trucks and buses together, you're actually close to 40% of all road C02 emissions. Cars are roughly 60% of the issue"

Mr Nix said Ireland was significantly behind in terms of switching to electric powered public transport and goods transport. He said in the Netherlands, 80% or more of all new urban bus fleets are electric powered.

Here in Ireland, Bus Éireann currently has three hydrogen powered buses in operation, as well as 40 hybrids. A spokesperson said the company plans to convert its operations in Athlone to an all-electric service.

Dublin Bus had 14 plug-in hybrids in June of this year and were expecting to add further six. They also have plans to have one full electric route within three years.

Dublin Bus hybrid vehicles

In relation to truck manufacturers in the EU, Mr Nix said that around 40 to 50% of all new trucks in 2030 will be electric. This is a radical change as it was pretty much unthinkable five years ago, he said.

He added: "I think Ireland’s planning is significantly behind on this. They’re still looking at liquid fuel solutions, which unfortunately have been overtaken by technology.

"When you put vans, trucks and buses together, you’re actually close to 40% of all road C02 emissions. Cars are roughly 60% of the issue."

In relation to the Irish Government’s target for electric cars he said, in his opinion, it was the most effective measure available, adding that corporate targets from car manufacturers such as Volkswagen are headed in a similar direction. They have set out that 80% of their sales would be electric by 2030.

Member of the Oireachtas Transport Committee and Chair of the Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Steven Matthews, said in his opinion the public transport element is the most important.

"Public transport needs to be reliable, it needs to be good frequency, it needs to be comfortable, it needs to be attractive, and it needs to be affordable"

It’s not about setting targets but it should be about how people can be offered the opportunity to travel on another mode of transport rather than in a car, he said.

Mr Matthews said: "It doesn’t matter if that car is powered by battery or diesel or petrol, it still creates congestion, it still creates delays, it still impacts on the quality of life for people who have long commutes. So it’s better to offer people good public transport options."

"Public transport needs to be reliable, it needs to be good frequency, it needs to be comfortable, it needs to be attractive, and it needs to be affordable. So, if you can tick all those boxes, I think you will attract people to it."

He said this issue must be handled head-on and quickly. However, there’s no getting away from the fact that the one million electric car target remains.

Dr Paul Deane of UCC pointed out that in order to create an electric car market two things needed to happen.

"Car companies themselves need to retool and transform themselves to design, develop and manufacture and develop supply chains for these vehicles...and then the cost needs to drop in order to make the cars accessible to folks who are further down the socio-economic ladder.

"There’s no problem selling a Tesla to a wealthy driver, the challenge will be getting a car to a typical worker, without penalising them financially for the environmental benefit," he said.