Can America Really Drive Its Way Out of Climate Change?

Source: By SPENCER BOKAT-LINDELL, New York Times • Posted: Sunday, August 15, 2021

Illustration by The New York Times; photographs by Xuanyu Han, ynamaku, Sean Murphy via Getty Images

In the not-too-distant future, if the White House gets its way, stopping for gas could be as antiquated as connecting to dial-up internet. Last week, President Biden signed an executive order promising that by 2030, half of all new vehicles sold in the United States will be electric.

It would be a transformative change for a nation in no small way defined by its love of the internal combustion engine. But on the heels of the latest dire United Nations climate change report — which the U.N. Secretary General said “must sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels, before they destroy our planet” — does Biden’s plan go far enough? And can the climate problem posed by America’s car dependency really be solved by swapping gasoline for batteries? Here’s what people are saying.

Goodbye to gasoline

Gas-powered vehicles are the biggest single source of greenhouse gases in the United States, accounting for more than a quarter of the country’s total emissions. “A rapid shift from fossil-fueled combustion engines to electric vehicles is an essential step toward mitigating climate change,” The Times’s Coral Davenport says. “You can’t solve climate change without getting rid of them.”

In line with the Paris Agreement’s goal of keeping global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, President Biden has promised to put the country on a path to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Because vehicles stay on the road for many years, though, it’s estimated that all new cars would have to be electric by 2035 to reach that goal.

“It’s feasible, technologically, to replace most cars already on the road with equally affordable and powerful electric models within the next decade,” Davenport says.

Where things stand: In the United States, E.V.s remain something of a rarity: Just 2 percent of new cars sold are electric or plug-in hybrid, a far lower rate than in China and Europe, in large part because those places have more generous financial incentives and stricter auto regulations.

But underneath the surface, the market is unmistakably moving in the electric direction. This year, General Motors announced that it would phase out gas-powered cars by 2035. Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, Jaguar and Daimler, the world’s largest maker of heavy trucks, soon followed. And in May, Ford introduced an electric version of its F-150 pickup truck, the best-selling vehicle in the United States.

The transition could happen more quickly than some think. Justin Rowlatt, the BBC’s chief environmental correspondent, believes the E.V. market right now is about where the internet was around the late 1990s or early 2000s. “The internet, like all successful new technologies, did not follow a linear path to world domination,” he wrote in June. “Its growth was explosive and disruptive, crushing existing businesses and changing the way we do almost everything.”

Are E.V.s really a silver bullet for America’s car problem?

If you were trying to create a sustainable society from scratch, blanketing the country with highways and hundreds of millions of individually powered vehicles that sit idle 95 percent of the time is not how you’d do it. Cars — whatever their fuel source — are one of the least energy-efficient modes we have of getting from point A to point B. Some argue that climate change should spur the country to rethink the car’s centrality in American life, rather than just to replace one version of it with another.

“The planet will be much better off if we switch to electric cars,” the Times columnist Farhad Manjoo writes. “But gauzy visions of the guilt-free highways of tomorrow could easily distract us from the larger and more entrenched problem with America’s transportation system. That problem isn’t just gas-fueled cars but car-fueled lives — a view of the world in which huge private automobiles are the default method of getting around.”

Transitioning to E.V.s is seen by many as a more realistic path to net-zero emissions than breaking up America’s love affair with cars, as Manjoo calls for. But just how realistic is it? Biden’s executive order has no binding authority, and he has resisted calls to set a mandatory timeline for phasing out combustion engines, as the European Union has proposed and as California and Massachusetts have committed to doing.

Instead, the Biden administration plans to impose a set of emissions regulations it hopes will compel automakers to phase out gas-powered cars. But under the administration’s current plan, those regulations — which officials say will be legally challenging to write — won’t take effect until 2026. In the meantime, the administration plans only to restore emissions standards to about the levels that existed under President Barack Obama but were weakened during the Trump administration.

That timeline has drawn criticism from some analysts and activists. “Voluntary pledges from auto companies make a New Year’s resolution to lose weight look like a legally binding contract,” said Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Transport Campaign. “Global warming is burning forests, roasting the West and worsening storms. Now is not the time to propose weak standards and promise strong ones later.”

In the near term, the E.V. transition will depend on whether Americans are willing to make the switch. “Possibly the biggest hurdle ahead is consumer acceptance,” Jessica Caldwell, an analyst at the auto-data firm Edmunds, told The Wall Street Journal. “What will it take for Americans to be willing to change their car ownership habits to go electric?”

One major obstacle to widespread adoption is anxiety over running out of power, as charging stations are still much sparser than gas ones. Another obstacle is expense: While E.V.s are cheaper for consumers in the long run, they can cost up to $10,000 more than their gas-powered counterparts upfront.

The bipartisan infrastructure bill the Senate passed this week would authorize only $7.5 billion to build charging stations across the country, half of Biden’s original request, and it does not expand incentives for E.V. purchases. Automakers have said widespread adoption cannot happen without such investments. Democrats are aiming to incorporate more E.V.-related spending into their reconciliation bill, but its future remains uncertain.

The government could also spur adoption by raising the tax on gasoline, as the editorial boards of The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times have urged, but the Biden administration has called the idea “a nonstarter.”

Without these big carrots and sticks, the E.V. transition could extend well beyond 2050. “If automakers phased out sales of new internal combustion engines, it’s possible that older gasoline-powered cars might persist for even longer on the roads, as consumers who are unable to afford newer, pricier electric cars instead turn to cheaper used models and drive them more,” The Times’s Ivan Penn and Niraj Chokshi write.

For that reason, some analysts argue that America’s car fleet will have to shrink as it electrifies. “If electric vehicles are to play a major role in solving the climate crisis — which they must — they have to be paired with dramatic land use reform that shortens or eliminates a substantial portion of all vehicle trips, and replaces them with transit, walking, biking, shared vehicles, and other forms of mobility,” writes Matthew Lewis, the director of communications at California YIMBY.

Why the car is still king

If it was difficult to imagine a sweeping overhaul of public transportation in the United States before the pandemic — in 2019, just 5 percent of American commuters used public transit to get to work — it’s even more difficult now. The coronavirus pushed ridership and revenue off a cliff last year, and they still haven’t recovered.

The decline was a global phenomenon, prompting a rapid investment in cycling infrastructure in some countries. But in the United States, the coronavirus has for the most part only strengthened the bond between Americans and their automobiles.

“If commuters shun public transit for cars as their cities recover from the pandemic, that has huge implications for air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions,” The Times reported in March. “Most importantly, if transit systems continue to lose passenger fare revenues, they will not be able to make the investments necessary to be efficient, safe and attractive to commuters.”

The Senate infrastructure bill allocates about three times the amount of money for highways as it does for public transit. To some, like The Urban Institute’s Yonah Freemark, that’s a big missed opportunity. “The bill does not seem likely to produce the conditions for a movement of Americans away from driving and toward other modes like transit, walking, and biking,” he told The Verge. “The bill provides next to nothing for non-motorized modes of transportation.”

E.V.s may not be the ideal climate solution, but they’re the one Americans have to work with for now.