Consumer Reports presented an informational webinar on Wednesday, laying out the framework for a transition to cleaner transportation primarily via low-carbon fuels and electrification.
It’s a promising start — what with the variety of drop-in fuels that are hitting the market and price parity for electric vehicles possible as soon as 2025. The model has both government backing and the support of those automakers who have embraced its market potential, especially if that means convincing consumers to trade up sooner than later. But switching to EVs and low-carbon fuels ultimately fails to address the structural inefficiencies that result from dependence on the personal passenger vehicle as the primary mode of transportation in the U.S.
As a result, the transition is less about meeting an immediate need for substantial emissions reductions and more about keeping the auto industry afloat — ultimately falling short of the overall transformation that is needed in the transportation sector to reduce the total number of passenger vehicles produced and on the road.
Transportation is the No. 1 source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, according to Consumer Reports, with passenger vehicles responsible for 57 percent of those emissions. The present school of thought aims to fix this scenario by simply swapping out vehicles with internal combustion engines (ICE) for EVs, with low-carbon fuels potentially acting as a stopgap in the meantime. The U.S. government is so confident in this plan that it is investing $7.5 billion toward a charging infrastructure that will install 500,000 EV chargers across the country.
Still, gas-powered vehicles aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Not only are many of today’s cars still going to be in operation over the next decade, but ICE vehicles are also expected to continue to constitute the majority of sales through at least 2032. This means an estimated 20 million to 36 million more of them could hit the road by 2030, which would put the number of personal vehicles in the U.S. running on fossil fuels at over 300 million.
Transitioning to low-carbon fuels may help lessen some of the sting from that many tailpipes, according to the information Consumer Reports presented last week. The idea is that drop-in fuels made from ethanol, biodiesel and hydrogen could have a lower overall carbon output. There are caveats, of course. Ethanol and biodiesel made from corn and other foods raise ethical concerns — though moves toward producing the fuels from waste products, algae and other non-food sources are promising. Likewise, e-fuels require substantial electricity to make, and the infrastructure to produce them is lacking.
Regardless of whether a vehicle runs on gas or electricity, a substantial amount of carbon emissions are produced in its construction, with EVs actually responsible for a higher initial carbon output (though they make up for it after being driven for a while). Not to mention the resources and environmental degradation involved in mining lithium — a necessary evil when it comes to electrification with current mainstream technologies. In fact, replacing fossil fuels with batteries is starting to look a lot like swapping out one environmental catastrophe for another.
So, what’s the fix? Certainly, there comes a point where we have to accept that our Earth is finite. It does not contain unlimited resources, and it cannot absorb unlimited pollution and abuse. Transitioning to low-carbon fuels and EVs simply is not enough. What’s more, upgrading to electric while the ICE vehicle in the driveway is still running strong could do more harm than good for the environment. The personal passenger vehicle as a primary mode of transportation is just not sustainable for a planet with 8 billion people living on it.
Image credit: Filip Filkovic Philatz/Unsplash
Riya Anne Polcastro is an author, photographer and adventurer based out of the Pacific Northwest. She enjoys writing just about anything, from gritty fiction to business and environmental issues. She is especially interested in how sustainability can be harnessed to encourage economic and environmental equity between the Global South and North. One day she hopes to travel the world with nothing but a backpack and her trusty laptop.