Why reducing carbon emissions from cars, trucks and ships will be so hard

A growing number of cities, states and countries aim to dramatically reduce or even eliminate carbon emissions to avert catastrophic levels of climate change.

Ideas about how to get this done as soon as possible, including those Democratic lawmakers like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have sketched out in the Green New Deal framework. But most energy experts see two basic steps as essential.

First, stop relying on fossil fuels to generate most electricity. Second, the whole world should – sooner rather than later – use all that cleaner electricity to power transportation, agriculture and the heating and cooling of homes and businesses. The logical goal should be to get as many consumers to buy zero-emission vehicles as quickly as possible, right?

Maybe not. Our research on consumer behavior and the environmental impacts of automotive transportation leads us to expect that the transition to electric cars, trucks and ships will be dramatically harder that it sounds.

Tailpipe emissions

The roughly 250 million cars, SUVs and pickup trucks on U.S. roads today account for 60% of transportation emissions. The 11.5 million big trucks that move freight around generate another 23% and aircraft are responsible for 9% of those greenhouse gas emissions.

One reason why it will be hard if not impossible to convert all U.S. transportation to electric models within a decade or two is simple. Vehicles of all kinds are surprisingly durable.

We’ve determined that the average American car, truck and SUV remains in use for 16.6 years with many logging 200,000 miles or more.

When we researched how fast the nation’s entire fleet turns over, we found that even if every U.S. vehicle sold were electric starting today, it would take until 2040 for 90% of vehicles in use to be electric.

U.S. sales of electric drive vehicles have grown steadily since the all-electric Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid launched in 2010. In 2018, Americans bought 361,307 battery-powered plug-in electric cars, and 2,300 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, which like EVs produce no tailpipe emissions. Yet even following a big spike in sales in 2018 when Tesla’s mass-market Model 3 was launched, EVs still only account for less than 2% of new vehicle sales.

The reality is most Americans buying new passenger vehicles today are shopping for gasoline-fueled SUVs and pickup trucks.

EV improvements

Cheaper batteries, government subsidies and corporate innovation have all made EVs much more affordable and functional.

Owning EVs, however, remains inconvenient. There are too few charging stations to make these vehicles viable for everyone and EV driving range declines significantly in cold weather.