The big unknown in global efforts to reduce carbon emissions is China.
It is industrializing at a rapid pace, and a burgeoning middle class has savings galore to spend on its first automobiles--including luxury European brands.
By some estimates, the world's current 800 million vehicles will grow to as many as 2.5 billion by 2050. Virtually all the growth will come from developing nations, including China, India, Brazil, and Russia, with North America, Europe, and Japan staying static.
In 40 years, 360 million vehicles
Now a new study projects that China will have 356 million vehicles on the road by then. By comparison, the mature U.S. market has about 250 million today.
Under two different scenarios modeled, China's energy demand will level out after 2040, with growth starting to moderate between 2030 and 2035 due to market saturation for higher-energy consumption (e.g. larger homes, car ownership, electronic gadgets).
The likely scenario projects that 30 percent of China's vehicles in 2050 will be powered by electricity, which will come from a much lower-carbon grid than the largely coal-fired generation China uses today.
70 percent electric cars?
Under a more optimistic scenario, electric cars would make up fully 70 percent of China's fleet.
Projection of passenger vehicle population in China, now-2050, by China Energy Group
But even the gasoline-powered vehicles will be vastly more fuel-efficient than today's cars, due to actions already taken or being considered by the Chinese government.
Those include stiffer gas-mileage requirements, higher taxes on vehicle ownership in certain areas, limits on the number of cars that can be sold, and a ban on advertising for luxury vehicles.
(Some of those tactics, of course, would be hotly contested--perhaps even illegal--in the U.S. With the Chinese government in the habit of frequent crackdowns on any form of democratic opposition, it faces few such impediments to enforcing its policies.)
Unexpectedly, the report projects that China will become a net exporter of refined gasoline, as its consumption plateaus while it continues to import and refine petroleum to acquire different distillates for other purposes.
The study comes from the China Energy Group at the Lawerence Berkeley National Laboratory, operated by the U.S. Department of Energy.
Green Car Congress summarizes it in much greater detail; the actual report, China’s Energy and Carbon Emissions Outlook to 2050, is also online.