With over a million electric vehicles now on the world’s roads, and the Paris Climate Summit nearing a much-anticipated climate deal, it’s a good moment to contemplate the potential of EVs as one of the really big climate solutions. Do we think electric drive really is the future? Just how big are the potential climate benefits?

The place to start is to look at what the auto manufacturers are saying and doing—and they are astonishingly bullish:

So, it’s safe to say that those who would manufacture the vehicles are gearing up for a highly electrified future.

And many governments are doing their part to support these automaker efforts – those that have joined together in the newly launchedInternational Zero-Emission Vehicle Alliance. The governments in the ZEV Alliance have deployed very effective combinations of incentives, infrastructure support, and public awareness activities to promote EVs, and have seen a greatly disproportionate share of electric vehicles as a result. With the ZEV Alliance as a forum, they will continue to collaborate, learn from what’s working, implement further electric vehicle actions in their markets, and encourage others to do the same.

Given the optimistic and proactive outlook from both industry and governments, it’s no surprise that electric vehicles have been in the spotlight at the COP21 in Paris. Electric vehicles have been highlighted at many events, including the Lima-Paris Action Plan Focus on Transport event, Transport Day, and a High-Level Event on Zero-Emission Vehicles. During the COP21 proceedings, three new members —Germany, New York, and now British Columbia — have joined the ZEV Alliance and amplified the call for a full transition to all ZEVs by 2050. In addition, Renault-Nissan and Tesla, as well as a larger electric vehicle industry group, signed on to the Paris Declaration on Electro-Mobility, aimed at electrifying the transport sector.

And just how big might the environmental benefits be from these electric vehicles? One new study from the Union of Concerned Scientists, after meticulously tracking the lifecycle impacts, shows that electric vehicles have a much lower carbon footprint than conventional vehicles. New analysis by the Electric Power Research Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council shows significant carbon and local pollution benefits – and the benefits grow as the grid shifts to lower carbon sources.

Looking globally, and further into the future, our recent analysis indicates that the carbon benefits in the long term are enormous. As the graph below illustrates, the benefits begin to accelerate in the next decade, and really start adding up from 2035 on, as electric vehicles displace more of the conventional gasoline and diesel fleet. A transition toward a global electric vehicle fleet could deliver well over a billion tons carbon dioxide emissions savings per year by 2050. The cumulative impact through 2050 would be over 10 billon tons less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from the transport sector.

lutsey_chart_evcarbon

What do we make of all this? The potential climate benefits of transitioning globally to an electric-drive vehicle fleet are enormous, but so too is the challenge. Fortunately, both automakers and governments are actively leading in this case, and there’s good reason to believe we will be equal to that challenge. Our estimates, in line with others’, are there’s the potential to approximately halve transport emissions in 2050 and bring the sector in line with 2°C climate stabilization scenarios.

The future of transport, if it’s to be a low-carbon one at least, is electric.