I often wake up thinking of a daunting fact: We will have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2050 to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. That’s just 35 years to create sustainable economies that buck the centuries-long trend of sending more and more carbon pollution into the atmosphere.
A tall order, indeed, but failure will mean weather events that make California’s unprecedented drought look commonplace. Imagine sea levels rising by feet instead of inches, global average temperatures increasing by many degrees instead of just fractions and an increase in other cataclysmic, costly and fatal weather events.
There is cause for hope, though.
In 2014, something momentous in our planet’s history happened, and went largely unnoticed. The global economy grew by a healthy 3.3% while emissions of the most common greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, didn’t. This has never happened before. The only previous times carbon emissions have dropped were when the economy tanked, like in the 2008 financial crash.
The International Energy Agency identified the few existing greenhouse gas regulations as a key reason for the leveling out of carbon emissions. In other words, regulations that reduce carbon emissions can coexist with a growing economy. The success of 2014 also provides a blueprint for how to reduce emissions much further.
In the United States, the most important of these regulations are the 2012 greenhouse gas emissions standards on passenger vehicles. Enacted during President Obama’s first term, these rules represent the first-ever national climate action taken to rein in greenhouse gases.
With the unprecedented cooperation of the auto industry, fuel efficiency in 2025 will be doubled to 54.5 mpg. In terms of carbon pollution reductions, this is comparable to taking 80 million vehicles off the road. An American driver will save an average of $8,000 at the pump while the nation saves $1.7 trillion. The United States will also improve energy security by cutting oil imports by 2 million barrels daily, or about half of what we import from OPEC today. The Economist called these historic rules the sixth most important global action to reign in carbon pollution — ever.
Despite these successes, the regulations are nothing but a down payment on the levels that have to be targeted. In the transportation sector, meeting the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% in 2050 means the average car on America’s roads must get the equivalent of 180 mpg. This may sound impossible but, again, there are reasons to be optimistic.
For one, auto companies are already ahead of the curve in meeting the requirement of 54.5 mpg in 2025. In fact, fuel economy on 2013 vehicles was an average of 1.4 mpg higher than required. There were also three times more vehicles getting at least 30 mpg than five years previously.
These fuel-efficient models have a big market. Despite today’s low gas prices, fuel economy is still the number one criteria for car shoppers, according to JD Power. As gas prices nose back upward, the number of consumers looking for efficient cars will only grow.
Secondly, the United States isn't alone in these actions. The vast majority of cars sold globally are already subject to some sort of fuel efficiency or environmental requirement. In fact, the four biggest economies in the world all have fuel efficiency standards that will converge by 2025, encouraging research and development of lower emission vehicles on an international scale. Likewise, most of the world’s megacities are expanding initiatives to clean up their air, including prohibiting dirty cars from entering certain zones, fees to drive in congested areas and promoting use of public transportation.
But reducing carbon emissions isn’t just about hyperefficient or alternate drivetrain vehicles. Innovations in nontraditional transportation technologies are also a huge piece of the puzzle. For example, Google’s driverless test fleet has logged 700 thousand miles on public roads in normal traffic without a single accident. Autonomous cars’ superior operation makes them significantly more fuel efficient and safer. Even traditional automakers are seeing the future of transportation as radically different. BMW’s i series includes an electric vehicle designed to appeal to younger drivers in megacities and urban centers.
Just a few years into the first-ever national action on greenhouse gases, we're seeing lower carbon emissions, record high fuel economy and a thriving auto industry. But to meet the goal of an 80% reduction in greenhouse gases in 35 years, we will need many more actions, including smart regulation that creates markets for more clean auto technology, continued federal investment in technology like cheaper, higher-density batteries, states pursuing projects like California’s innovative Zero Emissions Vehicle, as well as effective international coordination on clean transportation options.
Last year, we got some good news. Now we need to step on the accelerator.