The deadly heat waves, epic floods, and worsening droughts around the world are forcing a reckoning on climate change. We messed up, badly, and the earth’s rapidly destabilizing climate system is the consequence.
There are many “mistakes” that have brought us to this moment of truth — powering our economies on coal and methane gas, cutting down rainforest to grow beef, soy, and palm oil — but one of the biggest and most intractable: Car culture, NIMBYism, and their incumbent challenges in energy use, land use, social equity, and human health and safety.
Cars are not only the leading source of climate pollution in the United States, they’re also the leading cause of premature death for young Americans and a disproportionate cause of negative health outcomes: air pollution and sedentary lifestyles are major contributors to American morbidity and mortality, not to mention the 2 million Americans who are permanently injured every year by car crashes.
But there’s a problem: We’ve spent 50 years tearing down our cities and remaking them for sprawling, single-family house development, entirely reliant on the automobile. The climate crisis is urgent, and we don’t have time to completely undo this mistake and re-build our cities from scratch.
So, the question becomes: How much time do we have? Can we simply swap out electric cars for gasoline vehicles, and solve the climate crisis? The answer: Unequivocally, no. There are simply too many cars, too many of them run on gasoline, and most new cars sold today still run on gasoline.
To make matters worse, our current urban land use policies are still controlled, in most cities, by NIMBYs opposed to more housing; who defend parking as a divine right; who oppose safe street interventions that save lives and make communities more walkable; and who block efficient transit interventions, like dedicated bus lanes.
When it comes to climate change, NIMBYism is a huge factor in exacerbating pollution from cars, but it’s also led to the point where we have no choice in the matter: By forcing workers to live far from their jobs, and by allowing the car industry to continue selling gasoline vehicles, we have foreclosed the option of achieving a climate-friendly car culture.
As of this writing, there are 280 million cars and trucks in the American fleet, and 278 million of them run on gasoline. In an average year, Americans buy around 17 million new cars. So, in a scenario where 100% of new car sales were electric in 2021, it would be 2037 before all U.S. cars and trucks are electric (assuming no growth in the size of the fleet).
But we’re nowhere near 100 percent EV sales in 2021. Current estimates suggest the earliest date when the last gasoline car will be sold is sometime in the 2040s. In fact, the car industry is still focused on selling primarily gasoline cars, and primarily gas-guzzlers like pickup trucks and SUVs. And it’s made clear that its intention is to continue selling these climate-destroying beasts for most of the rest of this decade.
What that means: It will be a long, long time before the U.S. vehicle fleet will be all electric. Exactly how long depends on a number of variables, but the various scenarios are not hard to imagine — and in fact, experts have run the numbers and are converging on broad agreement:
If electric cars are going to be a part of the climate solution, Americans will have to drive much less. How much less is somewhat of an open question; but the California experience is illustrative. In 2018, the California Air Resources Board did the math on fleet turnover. What they found:
California cannot meet its climate goals without curbing growth in single-occupancy vehicle activity.
Even if the share of new car sales that are ZEVs [zero-emissions vehicles] grows nearly 10-fold from today, California would still need to reduce VMT [vehicle miles traveled] per capita 25 percent to achieve the necessary reductions for 2030.
Furthermore, strategies to curb VMT growth help address other problems that focusing exclusively on future vehicle and fuels technologies do not. For example, spending less time behind the steering wheel and more time walking or cycling home, with the family, or out with friends can improve public health by reducing chronic disease burdens and preventing early death through transport-related physical activity.