Electric cars (EV) and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV) are pivotal to the EU’s ambitious programme of decarbonisation. Given that the European Climate Law stipulates a target of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 and a 55% reduction of emissions for 2030 compared to 1990 levels, the mass production of sustainable transport is a pressing requirement. However, member states vary in their level of urgency to the issue and uneven progress puts EU targets on the course to failure.
The distribution of electric car sales by country reflects this divide. A 2020 survey by the European Environment Agency (EEA) showed that the top 10 European countries with the highest percentage of new vehicle registrations being EV or PHEV, are all from Western Europe. Norway, although not an EU member state, is the forerunner, with a total of 75% of sales in 2020, increased to 86% in 2021, with Iceland and Sweden making second and third places, respectively, whilst the United Kingdom stands a lowly 12th position with only 11%. Of the bottom 10 countries in the survey, all emanate from Central Eastern Europe (CEE) with the highest-ranking country from the region being Hungry at 17th position with 5% of sales.
Charging points show a similar disparity. A total of 73% of new electric charging points are in five West European countries; the Netherlands, France, Germany, the UK, and Norway. Meanwhile, four of the five countries with the lowest number of charging points come from CEE. The International Council for Clean Transport states that this unequal distribution is inevitable, as there is no “one size fits all solution” for the number of points needed and countries should create “different national deployment strategies beyond policies addressing costs and awareness”. However, a recent study headed by the European Automobile Manufacturers Association (ACEA) points out that the current 307,000 charging points available in Europe falls far behind what is needed. To tackle this, it recommends strengthening the “completely insufficient” Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Regulation and working towards a target of 6.8 million public chargers by 2030.
Lacklustre progress on electric has economic causes. Countries in the CEE region with scarce domestic budgets and a lower currency-value made worse by recent inflation, have large second-hand car markets which undercut more expensive electric cars. Additionally, prior to the Ukraine war, CEE countries’ had a ready supply of cheap Russian oil and gas which disincentivized the transition to transport electrification and EV adoption.
However, the solution to low EV and PHEV uptake in Europe is economic too; purchase incentives, including tax benefits on ownership, acquisition and company cars, and price incentives for the consumer. But again, they have only been adopted by states in Western Europe. In the two CEE countries with incentives, the Czech Republic and Austria, only tax exemptions for business are offered. These schemes are relatively meagre when compared to the stringent measures offered by a litany of Western countries such as Ireland, Austria, Greece, Luxembourg, Holland, Portugal, and Spain, who include price incentives on EV’s for the consumer. The EU’s head of climate change policy, Frans Timmermans, praises this growth of the “right incentives”, but elaborates that it is the EU’s “obligation” to deepen their cultivation across all member states.
Overall, European electric transport is developing unequally across the continent, threatening to derail progress towards net-zero emissions. However, there are signs that underperforming countries are beginning to internalise the electric car message. Slovakia, Greece and the Czech Republic achieved the highest growth rates between 2019 and 2020, the latter of whom looks set to secure a contract for a ČEZ gigafactory that makes battery cells for electric cars. Amid record energy price inflation, triggered by sanctions on Russian oil and gas supplies, more EU countries are waking up to the need for electric transport.