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Electric cars fend off supply challenges to more than double global sales

In the world of clean energy, few areas are as dynamic as the electric car market. In the whole of 2012, about 130 000 electric cars were sold worldwide. Today, that many are sold in the space of a single week.

Growth has been particularly impressive over the last three years, even as the global pandemic shrank the market for conventional cars and as manufacturers started grappling with supply chain bottlenecks. In 2019, 2.2 million electric cars 1 were sold, representing just 2.5% of global car sales. In 2020, the overall car market contracted but electric car sales bucked the trend, rising to 3 million and representing 4.1% of total car sales. In 2021, electric car sales more than doubled to 6.6 million, representing close to 9% of the global car market and more than tripling their market share from two years earlier. All the net growth in global car sales in 2021 came from electric cars.

We estimate there are now around 16 million electric cars on the road worldwide, consuming roughly 30 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity per year, the equivalent of all the electricity generated in Ireland. Electric cars helped avoid oil consumption and CO2 emissions in 2021, although these benefits were cancelled out by the parallel increase in the sales of SUVs.

Global sales and sales market share of electric cars, 2010-2021

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Electric car sales generally tend to be higher later in the year. In 2021, December sales were more than two and half times as high as sales in January in the top three markets. Still, over the course of 2021, monthly electric car sales were consistently at least 50% higher than the corresponding month in 2020.

Monthly sales of electric cars in major car markets, 2021 compared with 2020

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The People’s Republic of China (hereafter ‘China’) led global growth in electric car markets in 2021 as sales nearly tripled to 3.4 million. In other words, more electric cars were sold in 2021 in China alone than were sold in the entire world in 2020. The annual increase is the fastest electric car market growth in China since 2015, significantly outpacing the more gradual recovery of the country’s overall car market. Electric cars’ share of the overall market on a monthly basis leaped from 7.2% in January to around 20% in December. The Chinese government’s official target is for electric cars to reach a market share of 20% for the full year in 2025, and their performance in 2021 suggests they are well on track to do so.

Several factors underpin the market’s dynamism. The government extended electric car subsidies for a further two years after the pandemic broke out, albeit with a planned reduction of 10% in 2021, and 30% in 2022. The growth in 2021 sales despite the scaled-back subsidies suggests China’s EV market may be starting to mature. But it also could reflect an overheated by customers rushing to secure subsidies at 2021 levels before they declined at the start of 2022. Another important factor is the expanded range of small car offerings. The tiny Wuling Hongguang Mini EV is not eligible for subsidies but was still among the bestselling models in China last year, offering an affordable entry point to the market for new customers. Overall, the Chinese electric car market looks set for further growth in 2022, driven by the combined effects of consumer preferences for the new model offerings, residual national subsidies and continued preferential treatment for EVs at the local level (local subsidies, exclusion from city-level purchase limitations).

In Europe, electric car sales increased by nearly 70% in 2021 to 2.3 million, about half of which were plug-in hybrids. While annual growth was slower than in 2020, when sales more than doubled, this took place against the backdrop of an overall European automotive market that had not recovered from the pandemic. Total car sales in 2021 were 25% lower than in 2019. The surge in EV sales in Europe last year was partially driven by new CO2 emissions standards. Purchase subsidies for EVs were also increased and expanded in most major European markets. Monthly sales in 2021 were highest in the last quarter of the year, peaking in December when European sales of electric cars surpassed diesel vehicles for the first time with a 21% market share.

In absolute terms, the largest electric car market in Europe in 2021 was Germany, where more than one in three new cars sold in November and December was electric. Overall, electric cars accounted for 17% of total European sales in 2021, but there were significant differences across markets. Norway at 72%, and Sweden and the Netherlands at 45% and 30% respectively, sat atop global rankings. At 25%, Germany had by far the highest market share among large European markets, followed by the United Kingdom and France (both around 15%), Italy (8.8%) and Spain (6.5%).

The United States made an impressive return to the electric car market in 2021 as sales more than doubled to surpass half a million. The overall US car market recovered as well, but electric cars doubled their share to 4.5%. The US electric car market is still mostly dominated by Tesla, which accounts for more than half of all electric units sold. Tesla’s market share nonetheless declined from 65% in 2020 as new electric models were offered by other automakers. Federal incentives programmes were not renewed, but consumers can still benefit from generous tax credits (except for Tesla and GM vehicles).

Despite impressive growth in major markets, the sales of electric cars are not advancing at the same pace globally. China, Europe and the United States account for roughly two-thirds of the overall car market but around 90% of electric car sales. In most other markets, electric cars account for less than 2% of overall sales, and in large developing economies such as Brazil, India and Indonesia, the share is still below 1% without any significant increase over the past year. While sales of electric scooters and buses are expanding in these countries, the price premium attached to electric cars and a lack of charging infrastructure are key reasons for the sluggish uptake. In Japan, electric car sales also barely increased, with their market share remaining below 1% over the past three years. Korea and Australia show the greatest dynamism among smaller markets. In Korea, electric car sales more than doubled in 2021 after two years without growth, increasing their market share to 8%. Electric car sales in Australia also more than tripled in 2021, albeit from a low baseline, bringing their market share above 2%.


Government policies remain the key driving force for global electric car markets, but their dynamism in 2021 also reflects a very active year on the part of the automotive industry. Announcements, targets and new model launches have helped strengthen the view that the future of cars is electric. At the same time, the huge success of electric vehicles was challenged by tight supplies for components and increases in the prices of bulk materials, bringing supply side concerns to the top of the agenda for government and industry alike.

Over the course of 2020 and 2021, many governments set targets to phase out sales of internal combustion engine cars within the next two decades, as did several car manufacturers. Electric vehicles have become the road transport technology of choice for many governments and the automotive industry. The US government announced in November 2021 an ambitious 50% electrification target for new cars by 2030, supported by the announcement of the installation of 500 000 charging points to help increase consumer confidence. In Europe, the EU Commission proposed to bring the CO2 emission standard for new cars to zero by 2035. At the same time, several automakers announced electrification targets. For example, Volkswagen said that half of its sales would be electric by 2030. Ford said it expects 40%-50% of its sales to be electric by the end of the decade. Another significant milestone in 2021 was the statement by Toyota, the largest car manufacturer in the world, announcing new investments aimed at achieving electric car sales of 3.5 million a year by 2030. 

Global top five automaker electric car sales by region in 2021

OEM

World

Europe

China

USA

Other

Tesla

  936

  170

  321

  352

  93

VW Group

  763

  549

  154

  44

  15

BYD

  598

  1

  595

  0

  2

GM

  517

  0

  486

  25

  6

Stellantis

  385

  324

  14

  42

  5

Notes: In thousands of vehicles. Preliminary EV volumes data.

The embracing of electric cars by incumbent car manufacturers is likely to have strong repercussions for the market. As manufacturers sharpen their electrification strategies to compete for market share rather than considering EVs mostly as policy compliance vehicles, we will see more resources devoted to advertising, increasingly aggressive pricing and the development of ever more attractive electric models.

At the end of 2020 and throughout 2021, several new “EV only” and new generation plug-in hybrid models were released that were designed from the start to be electric vehicles rather than electrified versions of existing conventional cars. These models benefited from manufacturers increasing experience of electric vehicle design. Compared with the previous generation of models, they typically offered longer ranges, vehicle designs optimised for electric powertrains, and better value for consumers.

In Europe, Volkswagen introduced the ID series, while Stellantis presented new smaller EV-only models. In the United States, Ford introduced the new MachE, and Stellantis and Toyota each launched a new plug-in hybrid model. In the United States and Europe, many of the new models that contributed to higher EV sales were premium vehicles. In China, premium EV-only vehicles produced by Chinese start-ups accounted for 300 000 vehicles sold. But the best selling electric vehicle in China was the Wuling Hongguang Mini EV with just under 400 000 units sold in 2021. Overall, the introduction of new electric models across different segments of the car market is likely to continue to stimulate demand. The success of the Ford F150 Lighting is a good example, which received over 200 000 orders and led the company to increase production targets.


The future looks bright for electric cars, but there are warning signals coming from their supply chain, with bulk material prices increasing for the entire auto industry. In 2021, the price of steel rose by as much as 100%, aluminium around 70%, and copper more than 33%, affecting both conventional and electric cars. For electric cars, additional challenges were posed by increased prices for materials needed to manufacture batteries: the price of lithium carbonate increased by 150% year on year, graphite by 15%, and nickel by 25%, to name just a few.

For the time being, and perhaps surprisingly, volume weighted average battery prices have not increased since 2020. Three factors explain the steady prices. Firstly, battery prices are on a long-term decline trajectory, and continued technological progress helped offset the higher raw material costs. Secondly, there is a time lag between material price spikes and battery price increases, as costs take time to work their way through the value chain. Thirdly, the use of lithium ferrophosphate (LFP) chemistries in batteries has increased, reducing the impact of some of the price rises. However, if battery metal prices continue to rise, battery prices will be affected.

Several automakers also faced microchip shortages that held back output. The background to the microchip shortage is complex, but in general a faster-than-anticipated rebound of automobile sales and other microchip-reliant products was met by a tight supply of microchips. The shortage is problematic for EVs, which require around twice as many chips as equivalent conventional vehicles, mostly due to additional power electronics components. It is possible that without these disruptions, electric car sales could have been even higher in 2021. Several EV factory lines were mothballed for weeks, causing delays in the delivery of EVs.

While some of the supply constraints of 2021 will ease as the market rebalances, others may linger. The EV value chain proved to be robust in 2021 as it managed to deliver on higher-than-anticipated demand. But for EVs to continue their current growth trajectory, battery supply chains and EV production capacity will have to expand at a rapid rate. Both short-term demand and longer-term ambition have skyrocketed over the last two years, but supply chains have struggled to keep pace. 

As highlighted in last year’s IEA special report on The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions, the world faces potential shortages of lithium and cobalt as early as 2025 unless sufficient investments are made to expand production. Further growth of EVs requires not only an expansion of the extraction of key minerals – but also of the entire EV value chain. This spans battery metal processing and refining, cathode and anode manufacturing, separator manufacturing, cell production, battery assembly and, finally, the assembly of electric vehicles. Each of these industries, some of which are nascent, need to expand rapidly to avoid bottlenecks that would slow down the transition to full electric mobility. 

EVs are set to enter a new phase in which raw material and component supply come to the fore of policy-making as critical elements of the clean energy transition. For the first time, supply side bottlenecks are becoming a real challenge to the electrification of road transport and are adding to traditional demand side challenges. Policy action must adapt and provide the market with clear long-term signals to facilitate investments in further supply side expansions. The latest US infrastructure bill aimed at stimulating investments in battery raw materials, or the EU’s Important Projects of Common European Interests emphasis on batteries, are examples of such a new focus. These and other key aspects will be further analysed in this year’s edition of the Global Electric Vehicle Outlook in Spring. 


How the transition to EVs plays out over the coming decades is being determined by today’s actions by government and industry. The path ahead has several new challenges that need to be tackled:

  • Policies to stimulate demand are increasingly successful at convincing consumers to purchase electric vehicles. However, as the transition progresses, governments must not abruptly change the incentive structures in place. Rather, incentives and subsidies must transition to more targeted and financially sustainable tools.
  • The expansion of the battery industry can put strains on the material supply chain. Governments will need to set out clear policy frameworks and foster international collaboration to ensure that all the required investments are made on time and in an environmentally and socially sustainable way to ensure a growing EV industry.
  • As the share of EVs increases so will the need for charging infrastructure. The current impetus in sales can only be sustained if ever larger shares of the population have access to convenient and affordable charging infrastructure. Governments will have to facilitate investment in this sector by minimising all market and non-market barriers to the roll-out of charging infrastructure.

The IEA will continue to support governments to better understand and assess policy options for road transport electrification and provide independent analysis on the topic, including in the upcoming Global Electric Vehicle Outlook. The IEA will also offer opportunities for international collaboration to speed up the transition to zero emissions transport and provide a forum for governments to share views on best practices to accelerate electrification, including through the CEM Electric Vehicle Initiative. In this context, the IEA will also support developing economies’ efforts to tap into the opportunities offered by EVs by working together with the UN Environment Programme and other partners on the GEF-7 Global E-Mobility Program.

Notes and references
  1. Electric cars in this commentary refer to electric light-duty vehicles, which include passenger cars and light commercial vechiles (vans, light trucks).