As part of the 2015 Paris Agreement, over 190 nations pledged to reach net zero emissions by 2050. To achieve this, some have enacted target dates by which all new cars must be zero-emission. But many of those same countries are now having second thoughts.
Yesterday, the European Union (E.U.) approved a plan to end all sales of vehicles with internal combustion engines by 2035. The rule would apply to both gasoline and diesel and is intended as a step toward achieving complete carbon neutrality by 2050. But according to Reuters, five smaller E.U. member nations privately advocated for postponing the ban. The countries in question—Italy, Portugal, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania—advocated putting off the total ban to 2040, with slightly more modest bans on specific types of vehicles in the interim. The letter cited concerns over the feasibility of hitting target dates, specifically that "adequate and tailored transition periods need to be established." One Bulgarian official stressed "significant differences" in what smaller E.U. nations can accomplish.
At the same time, as the G7 prepared a commitment to increasing electric vehicle (EV) share by the end of the decade, Japan lobbied for more modest language. In place of "collective goal of at least 50% zero-emission vehicles by 2030," it advocated the phrasing, "significantly increasing the sale, share and uptake of zero-emission light duty vehicles recognising the range of pathways that members are adopting to approach these goals." Specifically, Japan's push reflected Toyota's contention that a wide range of options should be utilized, and not just a singular ban on combustion engines. The final G7 proposal adopted Japan's new phrasing.
The U.S. could soon face the same issue. Last year, President Joe Biden signed an executive order establishing the goal of making "half of all new vehicles sold in 2030 zero-emissions vehicles." This was an increase from the 40 percent pledge he hoped to extract from automakers just a month earlier. While Biden's order does not carry the force of law, it does set unrealistic expectations. The reality is that while fuel-efficient vehicles are a good means of mitigating carbon emissions without sacrificing living standards, Americans most likely won't make the switch on Biden's timeline (or California's).
Last year, a Morning Consult survey found that nearly half of U.S. adults would be willing to buy an EV if it cost the same as a traditional vehicle, while 18 percent would even spend more. And that was before gas prices hit record highs. Clearly, the market exists.
However, of the 15 million cars sold in the U.S. in 2021, only about 535,000 were EVs. Meeting Biden's pledge would require a 15-fold increase in EV sales. If the vehicle market somehow managed to scale as rapidly as Biden wants, it's still not clear that the charging infrastructure could support it, despite billions of dollars in federal subsidies.
Additionally, there may not be an immediate need for most people to switch. According to a new report by auto industry newspaper Automotive News, when gas prices hit $4 per gallon during the 2008 recession, motorists abandoned their SUVs and pickup trucks "in droves." But even with prices hitting record highs, there is currently no massive sell-off of gas guzzlers. The paper credits the overall stronger economy, as well as "a significant improvement in the fuel economy of most internal-combustion vehicles, including large pickups and [SUVs]." For example, while the Ford F-150 now comes in an all-electric option, even the gas-powered model has 50 percent better fuel economy than its 2008 equivalent.
Switching from gas-powered cars to alternatives that use less energy and generate less pollution is a laudable goal. Increasing EV sales suggest that many Americans agree. But a top-down exhortation that half of all vehicles must be electric within eight years feels more like wishful thinking than a market-based possibility.