We Need Electric Cars to Decarbonize Transportation. But They Can't Be the End of the Story.


If there are to be motorized vehicles in 2050, and if we are also to meet our obligation to prevent the worst impacts of global warming, those vehicles are going to need to run on something other than fossil fuels. When it comes to light-duty cars and trucks, electricity appears to the most promising option.

Environmentalists have pushed for a transition to electric cars for decades, and there are now signs of real movement. Electric cars may have just had their “iPhone moment” with the frenzy over the announcement of the Tesla Model 3 this spring. Electric cars are vastly more efficient than internal combustion engine cars, and if powered with 100% renewable energy, they could enable us to travel carbon-free by mid-century.

So, if electrification and renewable energy alone can get us to 100% carbon-free travel, why worry about transit, bike lanes, shared vehicles, land-use policy or any other strategy for greening transportation? Here are five reasons why an integrated strategy that includes, but is not limited to, electrification remains critical if we are going to stabilize the climate:

1)      Energy demand matters.

Reducing the amount of energy we consume makes the transition to a fully renewable energy system easier, less costly and less disruptive than it might otherwise be. Most scenarios for decarbonizing our economy recognize that while renewable energy may turn out to be cheap (both in terms of its cost and its environmental impact), it is not free, and that energy efficiency strategies will play an important role in decarbonization.

In transportation, limiting growth in vehicle travel and improving the efficiency of our transportation systems can make the transition to a zero-carbon future cheaper, easier and faster than it would be if we drive an increasing number of miles each year in ever-larger vehicles. (This is particularly important given predictions that autonomous vehicles could fuel an increase in vehicle travel.) Remember that, even as we transition transportation to clean energy over the next few decades, we will need to make a simultaneous transition in our homes, our businesses, our factories and the rest of our economy. Using energy efficiently will still be important, even when all the energy we use is clean.

2)      An integrated strategy can accelerate electrification.

Fitting electric vehicles into our transportation system has been like fitting a square peg into a round hole. Electric vehicles are excellent in many respects, but consumers have been hesitant to accept them, due largely to concerns about travel range. In a country where car ownership is virtually mandatory, in which we rely on personal cars for most of our daily travel, and in which we drive those cars long distances each day, hesitancy around range issues is not surprising. No one wants to be stranded.

Faced with a square peg and a round hole, there are two ways you can get them to fit together: you can change the shape of the peg or change the shape of the hole. Automakers have been pushing technologies to change the shape of the peg, with the next generation of EVs likely to have far greater driving range than previous versions.

But what if we imagined a transportation system in which travel range mattered much less than it does today? What if, instead of recharging our own cars, we could choose a fully-charged EV from a pool of shared cars instead? And if, by shifting from personal ownership to a shared mobility model, each of those cars got a lot more use, wouldn’t they need to be replaced faster, allowing new EV technology to come into the marketplace at a more rapid clip?

An integrated system approach to transportation enables us to look at the shape of both the peg and the hole – applying policy strategies to accelerate technology where that makes sense, and supporting system reforms to ease the pathway for new technologies when that is the most beneficial path forward.

3)      Other solutions exist and are working.

Here in Boston, we have been traveling in shared electric vehicles for years. They are called MBTA subway cars. And it is not because we are “early adopters” – Americans have had access to a variety of cheap, convenient, zero-carbon or potentially zero-carbon transportation modes for centuries.

There are communities within the United States and around the world in which those modes of travel predominate. The typical resident of the New York City urban area, for example, drives half as much each day as the average resident of the Oklahoma City area, while the average resident of New York City proper drives far less than the average resident of the New York urban area as a whole. Beyond big cities, many smaller towns and cities – especially college towns – have elevated biking and walking to be central forms of transportation. And let’s not even get started about bullet trains in Japan, subways in Paris, or bikes in Amsterdam.

For a variety of reasons (many of them listed below), cities with vibrant low-carbon transportation cultures will want to keep and build upon them, while other communities may aspire to follow in their footsteps. Vehicle electrification will be important in these communities as well, as every city and town uses motorized transport to some extent, and all will need to decarbonize. But electrification may prove to be a supportive strategy in many communities, even as it plays a starring role in others. That’s important to keep in mind as we develop national and state-level policy.

4)      An integrated strategy maximizes co-benefits.

Electrifying vehicles reduces pollution. It does not solve congestion, provide transportation access to those without it, prevent deaths and injuries from crashes, or make the fiscal trainwreck of our current transportation system any less trainwreck-y.  There are policies and strategies – many of them highlighted in our upcoming report, A New Way Forward – that achieve several of these goals at once. Keeping in mind the “co-benefits” of emission reduction strategies can help ensure that the steps we take to decarbonize transportation – including electrification – work synergistically to maximize benefits for society. It can also create opportunities to build coalitions of people and groups – including those for whom climate change might not be a motivating concern – that are capable of overcoming entrenched bureaucratic inertia and special interest opposition to achieve transformation.

5)       We need a Plan B.

Over the past year and a half, the price of gasoline has collapsed, bringing with it a resurgence in vehicle travel and greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. The experience is a reminder that history does not always move in a straight line, and that major transitions can experience both sudden bursts of forward momentum and unexpected setbacks. The transition to electric vehicles may experience several such setbacks over the next few decades. Pursuing multiple strategies to curb carbon emissions from transportation can ensure that those setbacks are not too damaging, and that they enable us to continue to move on a path toward the zero-carbon transportation future we need to achieve if we are to prevent the worst impacts of global warming.

Previous posts in this series:

1. We Can Do It: A Zero-Carbon Transportation System Is Possible

2. Achieving the Impossible: Unlocking the Power of Transformation

3. Can Old Cooks Learn New Recipes? Technology, Institutional Change and Green Transporation

4. Heal the Rust Belt, Heal the World