Electric car registrations increased by 41% in 2020, despite the pandemic-related worldwide downturn in car sales in which global car sales dropped 16%, according to a new report by the International Energy Agency (IEA).

The report says around 3 million electric cars were sold globally in 2020 (a 4.6% sales share), and Europe overtook China as the world's largest electric vehicle (EV) market for the first time.

There were 10 million electric cars on the world's roads at the end of 2020, following a decade of rapid growth, the IEA estimates.

The report is also upbeat over short-term trends. The near-term outlook for EV sales is bright, the IEA says. In the first quarter of 2021, global electric car sales rose by around 140% compared to the same period in 2020, driven by sales in China of around 500,000 vehicles and in Europe of around 450,000. US sales more than doubled relative to the first quarter of 2020, albeit from a much lower base.

Out of the world's top 20 vehicle manufacturers, which represented around 90% of new car registrations in 2020, the IEA says 18 have stated plans to widen their portfolio of models and to rapidly scale up the production of light-duty electric vehicles. Automakers offered 370 electric car models in 2020, a 40% year-on-year increase.

The IEA's Global Electric Vehicle Outlook 2021 report states that there are three main reasons for the resilience of EV sales during the pandemic. One of these is supportive regulatory frameworks, such as CO2 emissions standards and zero-emission vehicle mandates, while also highlighted are additional incentives imposed in some countries to safeguard EV sales from economic downturns, and an expanding choice of EVs for sale - a 40% year-on-year increase in the number of models available - which came alongside a reduction in battery costs.

The IEA report says existing policies around the world suggest healthy growth over this decade: in what the IEA terms the 'Stated Policies Scenario', the EV stock across all modes (except two/three-wheelers) reaches 145 million in 2030, accounting for 7% of the road vehicle fleet.

EV markets could be significantly larger if governments accelerate efforts to reach climate goals. In the IEA's 'Sustainable Development Scenario', the global EV fleet reaches 230 million vehicles in 2030 (excluding two/three-wheelers), a stock share of 12%.

The expanding fleet of EVs will continue to reduce well-to-wheel GHG emissions, with the net savings relative to internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles increasing over time depending on the pace at which electricity generation decarbonises. In 2030, in the Stated Policies Scenario, the global EV fleet reduces GHG emissions by more than one-third compared to an equivalent ICE vehicle fleet; in the Sustainable Development Scenario, the level rises to two-thirds.

"While they can't do the job alone, electric vehicles have an indispensable role to play in reaching net-zero emissions worldwide,'' said Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the IEA. "Current sales trends are very encouraging, but our shared climate and energy goals call for even faster market uptake. Governments should now be doing the essential groundwork to accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles by using economic recovery packages to invest in battery manufacturing and the development of widespread and reliable charging infrastructure.''