If we mean business with our pledge to keep global temperature increase below dangerous levels, then we have no time to lose to take action. Despite good intentions, global greenhouse gas emissions are still rising and are far from peaking. At current levels, we — as in humans — emit over 50 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gases, based on 2019 data.¹ Yes, 2020 was different thanks to a global health crisis and greenhouse gas emissions plunged by a record 2 billion tonnes. Yet, this is followed by a strong rebound, eliminating any emissions cuts and overshooting the old levels.² ³
In high-income countries, emissions from the electricity sector are going down, thanks to higher shares of renewable energy and energy efficiency measures, a trend that persists since the global financial crisis of 2008.⁴
Transport emissions are, however, not steady even in high-income countries and their relative importance is growing, representing about a fifth of global emissions. One of the reasons for the slow speed of emissions reductions in transport and mobility is the lack of readily available and cost-competitive alternatives to polluting combustion engines, both in individual passenger cars and in heavy duty vehicles. To put it in perspective, about 75% of transport emissions are from road transport and within this, passenger cars dominate by far with a total of 45% of transport-related emissions. So, if we have to pick where to begin, we can cover the largest share of emissions in transport if we cut passenger vehicle emissions.⁵
We have less than 10 years left to cut these emissions in half, and less than 30 years to go to net zero emissions.
Of course, we can appeal to reason and morale and ask people to switch from cars to bicycles, walking and public transport. We can also hope that people might purchase electric vehicles or reduce mobility demand. Unfortunately, passenger vehicles have a total road life time of about 11 years, in lower income countries even longer. Even if we would only sell electric cars from tomorrow on, it would still take until the mid 2030s to switch the fleet over to electric only. Waiting for the market is simply too slow for what we need to achieve.
Pleading with the public to stop driving gasoline and diesel cars voluntarily will only have a marginal impact since there are too many factors working against the idea: cars offer a high level of physical ease, being air conditioned and low-effort, while all alternatives expose the user significantly to the elements and exert some level of physical strain or even discomfort.
Maybe we need a different approach.
If we look at the climate crisis as a public health crisis, then it might be helpful to look at how we dealt with past health crises to draw some lessons for how to overcome our addiction to oil.
World smoking rates went from 27% in 2000 to 20% in 2016, continuing a long term trend.⁶ What contributed to the success of anti-smoking policies and campaigns?
The key factors reducing cigarette consumption are: price increases via taxes, ban on advertising, bans on indoor smoking and increasingly bans on outdoor smoking, all flanked by support to people quitting tobacco use.
If we transpose these lessons to our oil-addiction, then we should take these measures:
- Increase fuel taxes step-wise annually;
- Ban advertising for combustion-engine vehicles;
(add: ban of motor sports)
- Impose escalating bans for combustion engine vehicles, starting with the urban core, expanding to entire cities and leading eventually to an outright ban;
- Support people getting rid of their combustion engine car, providing direct financial support for scrapping the gasoline or diesel car without replacing it, improving bicycle and walking infrastructure and offering better and affordable public transportation.
Should we support electric vehicle adoption? Yes and no. Yes, since they are better than combustion engine vehicles, but also no, since the return on your investment is lower than in other measures and the payback time is too long to let us still succeed with our ambitious goal of keeping global temperature increase below dangerous levels.
The climate crisis is not a trivial threat, it is a serious risk for the stability of our societies and the continuation of our norms, values and the rule of law.
It is not too late. And just as with smoking, any day is the best day to quit.