3 billion cars by 2050 would need biofuels to offset climate impact: projection


Traffic in Atlanta, Georgia during rush hour (via Wikimedia)

Traffic in Atlanta, Georgia during rush hour (via Wikimedia)

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Even with aggressive promotion of battery-electric or hydrogen fuel-cell cars, hundreds of millions of internal-combustion vehicles will remain on the world's roads for decades to come.

But estimates of exactly how many internal-combustion cars will be displaced by alternatives in a given period vary wildly.

One alternative-fuels lobbying group thinks that even in 2050, the number of zero-emission vehicles won't be high enough to produce meaningful reduction of carbon emissions.

DON'T MISS: Electric-car market share in 2020: estimates vary widely

The Fuel Freedom Foundation predicts that there will be 3 billion cars on the world's roads by 2050, about half of them powered by internal-combustion engines.

The group hopes we'll conclude from the projection that substantial use of carbon-netural biofuels is required to reduce transportation-related emissions.

To drive the point home, the Fuel Freedom Foundation created an interactive model in which users can plug in different expected rates of electric-car sales growth.

FlexFuel badge on E85-capable 2009 Chevrolet HHR

FlexFuel badge on E85-capable 2009 Chevrolet HHR

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The default settings are based on predictions from Bloomberg New Energy Finance (which only extends to 2040), Goldman Sachs, and the International Energy Agency.

All three scenarios show substantial electric-car sales growth over the next few years, with Bloomberg expecting 32-percent annual growth between 2016 and 2020.

In all three cases, though, sales growth gradually tapers off closer to 2050.

ALSO SEE: 1.2 Billion Vehicles On World's Roads Now, 2 Billion By 2035: Report (Jul 2014)

The estimation of 3 billion cars by 2050 is itself open to debate.

The Fuel Freedom Foundation estimates there are 1 billion cars on world roads right now, and in 2014 Navigant Research predicted the total would reach 2 billion by 2035.

The foundation's 3-billion-car total was based on extrapolating the historical growth rate over the past two decades, said its representative Stacy Doss.

2016 BMW i3

2016 BMW i3

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From there, the model adds predicted new-car sales to cars already expected to be on the road at a given time, based on a retirement-rate formula from Argonne National Laboratory.

Estimates of electric-car adoption rates vary wildly. A recent study by Imperial College London and Carbon Tracker predicted that electric cars could account for two-thirds of the vehicle market by 2050.

But the fossil-fuel industry remains confident that gasoline and diesel will continue to dominate, with ExxonMobil recently declaring that electric cars would only make up around 10 percent of the U.S. new-car market by 2040.

MORE: Big energy hugely underestimates electric cars, renewable power

Whatever the adoption rates prove to be, the varying estimates and the Fuel Freedom Foundation's model do underscore a crucial point in looking at carbon reduction from personal transport.

That is that it takes decades to change the composition of the global vehicle fleet in a meaningful way.

Consider that catalytic converters first appeared in 1975, but that it took another 20-plus years before they were standard equipment on a majority of new cars—and a decade or more beyond that until the bulk of the global fleet was equipped with them.

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