An Electric Future
April 9, 2021
In January, one of the world’s major automakers, General Motors (GM), announced that it would stop selling gas-powered cars by 2035. The company says it will make more battery-powered vehicles. In March, Swedish automaker Volvo stepped up the timeline. It said it would go all-electric by 2030.
It’s a momentous time for the auto industry. Scientists say moving away from gas-powered vehicles is crucial to fighting climate change. Transportation causes about 25% of global carbon emissions . Three-quarters of that is from road travel.
Countries are eager to get more electric cars on the road. In China, policy makers say that most new vehicles sold there by 2035 will be electric. The United Kingdom, Ireland, and the Netherlands will ban new gas-powered cars in 2030.
Venkat Viswanathan is a professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He told TIME for Kids, “It is now abundantly clear that electric is the future.”
A Cleaner Option
The key to an electric future is batteries. Automakers are racing to pack the most energy into the smallest one. Enter the lithium-ion battery. It’s what powers our mobile devices. It can be recharged again and again.
Making these batteries has an environmental cost. Lithium is taken from the earth, like the oil used to make gasoline. But the long-term cost is much smaller. “Once you burn gasoline, you can’t recycle it,” Jessika Trancik says. She’s a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge. “But when you use up a battery, you can still recycle the material.”
As electric cars recharge, they draw energy from power plants that burn fossil fuels . This also has an environmental cost. But as countries switch to cleaner energy sources, such as wind and solar power, electric vehicles will get cleaner too.
Even now, electric vehicles are the best bet. Trancik says switching to one will reduce the carbon emissions a person generates by at least 30%.
It’s up to governments to make electric cars accessible to everyone. National policies can help. China has invested in electric-car production for years. A no-frills electric vehicle sells there for as little as $5,000. In the United States, a new Chevy Volt costs about $35,000.
Charging stations must also be made widely available. As part of an effort to fight climate change, President Joe Biden plans to build half a million of them in the U.S. by 2030. Trancik hopes this will be done fairly. “It’s important to put chargers where many different people can have access to them,” she says. “Not just wealthier people.”
Last year, almost 5% of approximately 67 million new cars sold worldwide were electric (see “On the Rise”). Sales will likely increase. For Viswanathan, electric cars are just the beginning. He sees a future of solar-powered homes and electric flying cars. “Your entire life will run on batteries,” he says. “It will be a totally new world.”
On the Rise
Worldwide, the sales of electric vehicles are trending upward. By some estimates, about 50% of new cars sold by 2030 will be electric (see chart).
The popularity of electric cars will rise as prices come down. That’s happening faster than expected. Technology is improving as governments invest in battery development. Soon, a plug-in vehicle might be as cheap as a gas-powered car.