Electric Vehicle Sales Take Off in Europe

Demand is rising in the United States, too, but more slowly. China remains a powerhouse.

The Mercedes-Benz S-Class 580e plug-in hybrid is for sale in Europe, but not the U.S. yet.
The Mercedes-Benz S-Class 580e plug-in hybrid is for sale in Europe, but not the U.S. yet.

Mercedes-Benz

The demand for electric vehicles is growing—slowly—in the U.S. In 2020, 1.8 million were registered, three times as many as 2016, the International Energy Agency (IEA) reports. Of those, 1.1 million were battery cars (as opposed to plug-in hybrids), up from less than 300,000 in 2016. So it’s modest growth, inching ahead.

But the explosive increase in EV sales in Europe points the way forward to true game-changing sustainability. According to Finbold, the demand for new battery vehicles in Europe was up 231.58% between the second quarter of 2020 and the same period in 2021. That’s 210,298 cars, up from 63,422. 

Sales of hybrid vehicles also soared in Europe, up 213.54%. It was, in fact, the fastest growth for all new passenger vehicle categories there. There are now 751,460 electric vehicles registered in Europe (presumably including the United Kingdom). That’s a tripling from 2020. 

It’s enthusiasm like this that led Honda to declare that it would sell only hybrid and electric vehicles starting next year—but in the European market. According to Tom Gardner, a Honda senior vice president, “The pace of change in regulation, the market, and consumer behavior in Europe means that the shift towards electrification is happening faster here than anywhere else.”

Honda isn’t offering any battery electrics in the U.S. currently, though a battery version of the Fit was previously in limited release. Its first two U.S. market cars, the Prologue SUV and an Acura variant will actually be built by General Motors and use its batteries. They won’t appear until 2024. But in Europe, the automaker now has two EVs, with plans to sell up to 10,000 Honda e minicars in the region annually. The little “e” has a 35.5-kilowatt-hour battery and 138 miles of range (but on the very forgiving European cycle). There are 134- and 152-horsepower versions. The prices start around $36,000 before any rebates.

Nik Pearson, a spokesman for Honda in Europe, tells Treehugger the company “will electrify its entire mainstream model lineup by 2022. This will be done through the roll-out of e:HEV hybrid technology and full battery electric.” The HR-V and Civic are next in line to be electrified. A hybrid Fit was sold in Europe, but not in the U.S. 

Honda’s electric e minicar
Honda’s electric e minicar could have 10,000 sales in Europe this year. It’s not available in the U.S.

Honda

Automakers are motivated to introduce EVs in Europe by tough European Union rules on emissions, as well as internal-combustion sales bans and travel restrictions. Ten European countries plan to stop allowing gas or diesel sales by 2035, and many cities have made their downtowns largely tailpipe-free. Brussels, Belgium, for example, bans all but the cleanest modern diesels in its “low-emission zone.” All diesels will be banned by 2030, and all gas cars by 2035. Oslo, Amsterdam and Paris have similar restrictions. London levies a $20 “congestion charge” on vehicles entering the central city that drivers of plug-in hybrids and battery electrics don’t have to pay (at least until 2025).  

Last year, almost three-quarters of the cars sold in Norway were EVs (where there are heavy subsidies), and more than half in Iceland. The IEA has data on 31 countries in Europe, and 10 of them have EV sales of between a tenth and a third of all new sales. 

The EU rules are accelerating. In July, the European Commission said the average emissions of new cars had to be cut 55% by 2030, and effectively to zero by 2035. The U.K. made a similar declaration. As recently as 2018, the commission was only requiring a 37.5% emissions reduction. 

According to the Pew Research Center, the U.S. currently has only 17% of the world’s EVs. China has 44% and Europe 31%. That makes China the world leader, with 1.3 million sales in 2020. That number is expected to reach 1.8 million in 2021. China vows to sell only “new energy” cars (battery electrics and plug-in hybrids) after 2035.