In Europe, sales of electric vehicles exceed those of diesels

Europeans bought more electric cars than diesel in December, an illustration of the growing popularity of battery power and the decline of diesel, which was once the most popular engine option in Europe.

More than 20% of new cars sold in Europe and Britain in December were powered solely by electricity, according to data compiled by Matthias Schmidt, an analyst in Berlin who tracks electric vehicle sales. Sales of diesel vehicles, which in 2015 still accounted for more than half of new cars in the European Union, fell below 19%.

The December figures illustrate how quickly electric vehicles are becoming mainstream. Sales of battery-powered cars soared in Europe, the United States and China last year as sales of conventional vehicles stagnated. Government incentives have made electric vehicles more affordable, the choice of electric cars has expanded, and buyers have become more aware of the environmental cost of vehicles with internal combustion engines.

The growth of electric vehicles is all the more remarkable as the global automobile market is in crisis. Sales of all new cars in the EU fell more than 20% in November as a shortage of semiconductors strangled production, according to the European Automobile Manufacturers Association.

“This is the real deal,” Schmidt said in an email. Its figures, based on data from European government agencies, were first published by the Financial Times. The data includes Norway, which is not a member of the EU and has the highest percentage of electric vehicles of any country on the continent.

Tesla was the top-selling electric vehicle brand in 2021, followed by Volkswagen, Schmidt said. Tesla will be in a good position to extend its leadership when the automaker opens a new plant in Berlin this year to serve the European market. Tesla imports cars from China.

Diesel has long been popular in Europe due to tax policies that made diesel fuel cheaper than gasoline. Diesel-powered vehicles are generally more fuel-efficient than gasoline-powered cars, but produce more harmful pollution.

Diesel’s decline began in 2015 after Volkswagen admitted to selling millions of diesel cars fitted with software that produced artificially low emissions in official tests. The illegal software made the vehicles much cleaner than they were.

The scandal drew attention to the pollution caused by diesel cars, responsible for tens of thousands of premature deaths. Cities like Hamburg and Berlin have banned diesel cars in certain neighborhoods, while the EU has tightened its rules on vehicle pollution. Automakers must pay substantial fines if they fail to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to prescribed levels.

The regulations have encouraged automakers to develop electric vehicles, which produce zero tailpipe emissions, to comply. Gas-powered vehicles are still more popular, accounting for 40% of new cars, but are also in long-term decline.

Mary I. Bruner