The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report last year stating that the world is quickly running out of time to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, the level widely agreed to be the conservative, safety-first goal to prevent serious climate harms. To get there, the world would have to cut current emissions by 45 percent by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050.
That sounds preposterously unlikely. Even 2 degrees of warming — which would be much worse than 1.5 degrees — would be nearly impossible to hit at this point (if we set aside hugely risky geoengineering schemes or untested carbon capture industries). It would mean something like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's hugely aggressive Green New Deal starting right now, and probably adding a bit along the way. The Democratic leadership has already made certain that won't happen in the near term.
But before we give in to despair, we should remember that the technology to address climate change is barreling along at high speed. The largest source of U.S. carbon emissions is transportation, and a Green New Deal for motor vehicles would be quite straightforward.
The reason is simple: With some decent subsidies, electric cars and buses are now cost-competitive with fossil-fuel vehicles, and they are getting better and cheaper with every passing month. Electric buses have made the greatest inroads into the market, because they are a logical choice for electrification and because China has been building them like crazy. By the end of 2018, electric vehicles were displacing about 280,000 barrels of oil demand per day — about 84 percent of which was due to buses. That's more than the whole consumption of Greece, and a 37 percent increase from 2017.
But the electric car market is also reaching maturity, with appealing designs and amenities, longer range, and a quickly-expanding rapid charging network in many countries. Norway (as usual) is blazing the path forward, with aggressive subsidies and perks (like cheaper tolls) for electric car buyers. Fully electric vehicles have leaped from 1 percent of sales in that country in 2011 to 6 percent in 2013 to 47 percent in 2018. (And with Norway's power generation almost entirely hydropower, once its vehicle fleet is decarbonized its transport sector will be as well.)
It's worth emphasizing that most of the infrastructure necessary to recharge electric vehicles already exists. People often tend to assume that we would need to replace every gas station, but virtually all homes and businesses already have an electrical connection which can be easily upgraded for fast charging — enough to handle the three-quarters of car trips that are less than 10 miles. All that is needed to go fully electric (granting a little inconvenience for charging at rest stops) is enough battery capacity and fast charging stations to deal with long-haul trips.
So how do we do it? Simple: heavily subsidize electric vehicles and/or tax gas and diesel ones, just like Norway. The technology is basically there, and with a moderately hard kick the rest of the niggling details would fall into place. Buses, in particular, would be an easy place to start, as many of them are already owned by U.S. governments — 480,000 just among school buses, which are almost all diesel and hence spew deadly particulate pollution in addition to carbon dioxide. A big government program to help school districts trade in old buses for electric ones would take care of two problems at once.
Now, unlike Norway, America would have to overhaul its electricity production, freight rail, shipping, and so on to fully decarbonize the transportation sector, which taken together will be considerably more difficult than simply extirpating fossil fuel vehicles from the market. Not to mention that this country badly needs more public transit, particularly inside large cities and in medium-distance passenger rail.
But greening America's vehicle fleet would be straightforward, relatively cheap, and a huge stride forward on climate — one which would undoubtedly inspire peer nations to step up their efforts as well. The politics of climate change are so daunting that despair can seem logical (or indeed unavoidable), but the first step to achieving a tough goal is the confident belief that it can be done. And this particular step wouldn't even be that tough.