China is buying half the world’s electric cars

Here’s an interesting chart from the 2022 Earth Index, which I was browsing this week. It shows global sales of electric cars, as measured by the IEA:

There are a couple of things to notice here. The first is the doubling of market share in 2021, when EVs shot up from 4% of new cars sold to over 8%. Yes, the other 9 out of 10 are petrol and diesel, so we’re nowhere near declaring the end of fossil fuel transport. But considering that just five years ago sales were around 1% electric, things are moving fast.

The second thing that jumped out to me is that in 2021, China single-handedly bought as many new electric cars as were sold worldwide in 2020. Half the world’s EV sales were in China. It’s not just cars either. As I’ve written about before, in 2018 China had 99% of the world’s electric buses and 80% of the world’s ebikes.

This dominance of electric transport is no accident. China has put a decade of investment into clean technologies, including specific targets for key technologies such as solar panels and batteries. (See Henry Sanderson’s book Volt Rush for details.) The country’s state support and enormous buying power has helped to reduce costs, cementing Chinese firms at the heart of the energy transition.

The world already benefits from cheaper Chinese solar panels and batteries, and electric cars may be next. Most of these EV sales in China are local companies such as NIO, Xpeng, SAIC, Geely – or BYD, which is the world’s biggest EV manufacturer. These aren’t household names in the UK, and predictions that Chinese EVs will sweep into UK showrooms have proved premature in the past, but they’ll get here eventually. A handful already have – SAIC owns the MG brand and re-badges its cars as MG for the British market.

With them will come a greater variety of EVs – legacy European car companies seem set on large and expensive SUVs, and we really need smaller and more efficient electric vehicles. There are also innovations being pioneered in China that may spread, such as cars with swappable batteries so that you can stop and top-up in five minutes rather than plugging in and recharging for half an hour. This has been tried without success before and isn’t available anywhere in the UK, while China has hundreds of battery swapping stations and drivers using them regularly.

All the usual caveats apply – that active and public transport are more important than private cars, and EVs need clean energy to make a real difference. You know the drill. But every percentage point gained in market share is lower emissions, lower air pollution, quieter cities, and another step towards sustainable transport.

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