We hear a lot about the coming transition from fossil fuel to electric power. Ten years ago, electric cars were glorified golf carts — great for running to the market for a quart of milk but not good for much else. Then came the Tesla Roadster, followed by the Nissan LEAF, Chevy Volt, and BMW i3. Suddenly, the end of fossil fuel cars was in sight and all the world’s manufacturers were racing to add electric cars to their fleets.
The purpose of all this, in theory, is to help limit carbon dioxide emissions so the average temperature of the world doesn’t increase more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times. That’s the point at which scientists say dramatic changes to the world’s climate will begin, endangering the lives of millions. Keeping global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees C would be even better. That’s the goal of the agreement entered into by all the world’s nations at the Paris climate summit last December.
But when, exactly, do we need to complete the transition to fossil fuel free transportation to keep the climate from careening off the rails? A new study by the Climate Action Tracker — a statistical model supported by three European research groups — sets the date exactly. It says 2035 is the date when the last fossil fuel powered cars can be sold if we are to steer the world away from climate disaster.
“We calculate that the last gasoline/diesel car will have to be sold by roughly 2035,” the CAT report said. It assumes the last fossil-fuel vehicles would be on the roads until 2050. The Climate Action Tracker is one of the main groups that monitors government efforts to restrict global warming and includes researchers who have been contributing authors on UN climate reports.
“It’s striking that it’s so early. It means a huge change in the whole automobile industry,” says Niklas Hahne, of the NewClimate Institute. The other think tanks behind the report are Ecofys and Climate Analytics. The phase out is earlier than anticipated by most car makers. For instance, Toyota, has established a “zero carbon dioxide emissions challenge” which seeks to cut emissions from its vehicles by 90% from 2010 levels by the year 2050.
2035 is not far away. While it may seem easy to imagine only electric vehicles on the road by then, in fact many projections suggest that electrics will only comprise 5% of the world’s transportation fleet by 2030. That means there is a lot of work to do and a short time to do it. The CAT study says a greener transport sector would require a parallel shift to clean power generation in order not to be charging electric cars with power derived from burning fossil fuels.
Political considerations will play an important role in the transition to electric cars and renewable energy. We will need to elect leaders who take the challenge seriously and will work to implement the goals of the Paris climate agreement.