Reflections on Electric Vehicles at COP21

By Marissa Galizia

Electric vehicles (EVs) were a hot topic at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP21, in Paris this December. A parking lot full of COP21 branded Renault-Nissan EVs and bright green charging stations greeted delegates from around the world on their way in to the conference center at Le Bourget. Renault-Nissan’s electric car service allowed conference attendees to book an electric ride from the conference center to select hotels, helping many passionate environmentalists try the climate friendly technology.

Inside the conference center, electric vehicles were a prominent part of most transportation-related discussions at the plethora of side events. At the High Level Transport Day on December 3, Segolene Royal, the French Minister of Ecology, announced the Paris Declaration on Electro-mobilty and Climate Change and Call to Action. It calls for at least 20% of all ground transportation to be electrified by 2030 in order to keep global warming limited to two degrees or less. Twenty-four companies and organizations from around the world have signed on to support the commitment including Renault-Nissan, Tesla and ChangePoint. Segolene Royal also announced a global competition for an EV under 7,000 Euros, with a range of 300 miles and a charging time of under 30 minutes. With these criteria EVs would be accessible to all, including those in developing countries.

The We Mean Business Coalition convened a roundtable conversation entitled 100% Electric: How Can We Accelerate the Transformation of the Transport System. The influential advocacy group’s CEO, Nigel Topping, moderated a panel with ChargePoint CEO, Pasquale Romano and sustainability execs from BMW, Renault-Nissan, and Ikea. Things got really interesting at the end of the conversation when Topping pushed the panel on when we should expect the last internal combustion engine will be sold. Romano boldly predicted 2035, citing the transformative adoption of the smart phone as precedent. The auto representatives were hesitant to commit to a date, opting to reframe the question to when EVs would become dominant in the market. They put this at 2030 – 2035. Steve Howard, CSO of Ikea, agreed that “EVs are the next smart phone” and predicted EVs would be dominant by 2023.

A High Level Event on Zero Emission Vehicles (ZEVs) in the Netherlands Pavillion brought together leaders in the private and public sector to discuss the opportunities and challenges ahead for ZEVs. Again, BMW and Renault-Nissan represented the auto-manufacturers and ChargePoint represented EV charging infrastructure. Senan McGrath from the Electric Supply Board provided the private utility perspective. Together, the automakers, ChargePoint, and the utility communicated that the market is ready for electrification of transportation. U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz and California Governor Jerry Brown also stressed the importance of ZEVs for greenhouse gas mitigation in transport.

Governor Brown made EVs a focal point of his messages at many speaking engagements throughout the week. Transportation emissions are 40% of all emissions in California - about 10% higher than the U.S. average. This stems both from the fact that Californians drive more than most Americans and that the state has a cleaner electricity mix than many others.

Governor Brown and Tom Steyer convened a delegation of business leaders from across the state of California to communicate all that California is doing to foster innovation and action in mitigating climate change. ChargePoint’s CEO Pasquale Romano was one of the 12 business leaders selected from across the state to participate in the delegation, which helped to bring EVs and EV charging into the conversation throughout the summit.

EVs were also at the center of the Sustainable Innovation Forum at the Stade De France, and Solutions COP21, at the Grand Palais, as well. BMWi, the electric transportation arm of the automaker, was a premier sponsor for the Climate Action Programme’s 6th annual Sustainable Innovation forum. They positioned a BMWi3 alongside a ChargePoint charging station right at the entrance to the stadium’s conference space and BMW executives spoke to all that BMW is doing to support sustainable mobility. At Solutions COP21 automakers from Nissan to Toyota displayed their latest and greatest alternative fuel vehicles under the grand glass archways of the Beaux-Arts palace.

The United Nations’ Momentum for Change Award also sent a strong signal about the important role EVs will play in keeping climate change at bay by selecting ChargePoint as one of the 15 Lighthouse Activities honored as an example of a transformative, innovative, and scalable information communication technology tackling climate change. The Momentum for Change Showcase Event on Thursday evening, right before the negotiations were intended to come to a close, was a celebration of the possibility that innovative technologies hold for enabling the world to achieve the ambitious targets set by world leaders in the negotiations.

Along with renewable energy and energy efficiency, electric transportation is both a critical need for the fight against climate change and a market-ready technology. The many discussions about EVs at side events throughout COP21 (which were many more than I could capture here) prove that international high-level leaders from business, government and civil society are in agreement. Now it’s up to us –as drivers, employees, legislators, and voters to bring EVs from center stage at a climate conference to center stage on our roads and parking lots.