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Cars should plug-in to a new future

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Plug-in hybrids and battery electric vehicles offer a promising pathway to a sustainable transport future that reduces risks of climate catastrophe and possible conflict over dwindling oil resources, a new WWF analysis has found.

Plugged in: the End of the Oil Age considers the future of a transport sector now 95 per cent dependent on liquid hydrocarbon fuels and examines the potential impacts and practicalities of electricity versus other oil substitutes that could fuel the future transport system.

It finds that vehicles running solely or partly on electricity supplied from the grid are significantly more efficient and may emit fewer greenhouse gases than many so-called “alternative fuels”, even when that electricity is mostly produced using fossil fuels. 

Less polluting power generation and more use of renewable energies make it certain that the comparative efficiency and pollution advantages of plug-in transport solutions will improve into the future. 

“We should all be relying more on walking and biking, on buses and trains, to get to where we need to go.  But cars will inevitably remain a major part of the transport equation.  The cars of the future must be much more efficient -- smaller, lighter, more aerodynamic -- and they should, increasingly, be powered by electricity,” says James Leape, Director General of WWF International.

As oil becomes more difficult to access, techniques to create liquid fuels from coal are now being vigorously pursued in the US, China, India, Australia and South Africa.  “Coal-to-liquid fuels are costly, energy intensive and extremely polluting, and have previously only been used on any significant scale in countries facing a state of emergency,” said report author Dr Gary Kendall.

Other alternatives to traditional oil extraction include exploitation of oil sands, which generates three times the emissions of petroleum processing and causes devastation to the local environment. 

The report also finds that the electric vehicles can be three times more efficient than hydrogen-fuelled vehicles, and more importantly can already be achieved using existing technology and distribution infrastructure. 

“Automotive transport is ripe for transformation,” said Dr Kendall.  “We need to accelerate the commercialisation of vehicles with diversified primary energy sources, high efficiency and compatibility with a sustainable, renewable energy future.  The electrification of automotive transport offers a promising way to achieve this objective.” 

To do so, the report recommends dismantling market barriers to superior technologies and removing a host of hidden and overt subsidies to liquid fuel use. Vehicles should be subject to similar energy labelling and efficiency improvement requirements as other energy-consuming appliances.  Liquid-based measures of fuel economy (e.g. litres per 100km or miles per gallon) and CO2 emissions targets should be replaced with technology-neutral indicators of energy consumed per kilometre. 

Summary of Plugged In report available here.