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Business trends

Earth now has more than 2 million electric cars

China, the top buyer, owns 32% of all clean-running vehicles

A Tesla car on display in Beijing

TOKYO -- The aggregate number of electric cars on the world's roads topped 2 million in 2016, the International Energy Agency said on Wednesday. China has been the largest contributor to recent growth in the market. It now owns the world's largest fleet of electric cars, having overtaken the U.S. in this department.

Still, electric cars -- battery-powered as well as plug-in hybrids -- account for a mere 0.2% of all cars. But the market is growing fast and could expand to 20 million by 2020, according to an industry estimate.

According to a report drafted by the IEA and industry lobby groups, the global stock of electric cars in 2016 increased 60% from a year earlier. The number of these cars in China doubled over the year to 650,000, surpassing the 560,000 being driven in the U.S. China accounted for 32% of the global electric vehicle market, up from 25% the year before. 

Desperate to improve its country's seriously polluted air, China's government has been pushing electric cars and is now planning to assign automakers a sales quota for so-called "new energy vehicles."

In 2011, there were only 7,000 electric cars on China's roads, but the number began rapidly expanding in 2014. The government wants to keep incentivizing easier-on-the-environment vehicles until 2020, so the market should continue growing.

Chinese and foreign automakers are keen to ride the wave. The joint venture between China's Dongfeng Motor Group and Japan's Nissan Motor has released an electric car exclusively for the Chinese market.

European nations have been early adopters of no- or low-pollution cars. In Norway, electric cars account for 28.8% of all registered cars, followed by 6.4% in the Netherlands, 3.4% in Sweden, 1.5% in France and 1.4% in the U.K.

Meanwhile, the traditional big automaking countries have been slow on the uptake. Only 0.9% of the cars on U.S. roads are electric. The figure is 0.7% in Germany. In Japan, it is 0.6%.

India has the lowest electric vehicle ownership rate, a tad more than 0%.

Norway and the Netherlands, meanwhile, are talking about banning sales of gas- and diesel-powered vehicles, possibly in 2025.

Norway is home to a number of low-cost hydroelectric power plants, so driving electric cars in the country could be cheaper than buying cars with internal-combustion engines, then having to continually refuel them.

This has allowed the Scandinavian nation to rake in foreign currency by exporting most of the crude oil and natural gas it produces.

Japanese automakers used to lead in the development of electric cars. Mitsubishi Motors was first to mass-produce one, the iMiEV. Today, Tesla and General Motors of the U.S. are gaining solid footings in the market.

Toyota Motor has been slow to enter the market; it expects to mass-produce an electric car by 2020. In Germany, Volkswagen, BMW and Daimler seek to raise their ratios of electric cars to all new cars they sell to 25% in 2025.

According to an IEA examination of numerous studies, the planet can expect to have 9 million to 20 million electric cars on its roads by 2020.

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