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Please Stop. I’m Tired of Hearing About Big Climate Goals

Please Stop. I’m Tired of Hearing About Big Climate Goals

Wednesday, 10 November, 2021 - 06:00

What a joke. The world’s biggest car markets and automakers won’t commit to a deal to eliminate new vehicle emissions over the next two decades.

Volkswagen AG, BMW AG and Toyota Motor Corp. are unlikely to get on board with an emissions pledge that’s expected to be unveiled at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow this week because key governments are reluctant, the Financial Times reported, citing people close to the negotiations. It includes a commitment to “work towards all sales of new cars and vans being zero emission globally by 2040, and by no later than 2035 in leading markets,” according to a version marked “final” that was seen by the newspaper and was due to be released Wednesday. As of Tuesday, Germany, China and the US — which together represented 59% of global vehicle sales in 2019 — hadn’t signed up to it.

Let’s put some context around why this lack of commitment is absurd: The transport sector is responsible for about a quarter of the globe’s emissions. Passenger vehicles are the largest chunk of this, releasing about 45% of carbon dioxide. If no measures are taken — which, going by this failure to agree, may end up being the case — annual greenhouse gases in 2050 will be 90% higher than last year. The three countries avoiding these commitments account for around 50% of the world’s CO2 from burning fossil fuels.

As the summit in Glasgow continues, the inability of the most important players to look beyond their individual goals shows why we’ve made so little progress on one of the biggest crises of our time. We hear about melting ice caps, floods and loss of lives constantly. At the same time, we read about billions of dollars of commitments and technological innovations. Yet we still aren’t making significant progress.

Even the most basic objectives are out of reach right now. The COP26 meeting is about setting clear targets to make sure we reach the commitments of the 2015 Paris Agreement, the last meaningful climate summit. Chief among those is limiting rises in global temperature to below 1.5 degrees Celsius and hitting carbon neutrality by 2050. In September, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that the planet was on a “catastrophic pathway” to 2.7 degrees of heating, “breaking the promise made six years ago.”

It’s staggering that key stakeholders won’t vow to do one of the most basic things. Consider the new car emissions pledge: To reach targets, road transportation needs to be entirely decarbonized by 2050, according to Greenpeace. Companies need to phase out internal combustion engine vehicles over the next decade to get there. However, seven out 10 of the biggest automobile groups don't even have plans to do this before 2035.

In a detailed evaluation of the commitments and actions made by automakers that represent 80% of the market, Greenpeace found they weren’t doing nearly enough. The activist group notes that as countries and regions adopted stringent regulations on emissions, some car manufacturers — under pressure — “formulated plans to deal with stricter laws and rules. But none of these plans is progressive enough to match the ambition of the Paris Agreement.”

Meanwhile, a Washington Post investigation published this week found that several countries underreport their greenhouse gas emissions to the UN. The gap, the newspaper found, ranges from at least 8.5 billion to as high as 13.3 billion tons a year — enough to have a meaningful impact on the planet’s temperature. So the problem isn’t even being measured correctly, and that means we’re in danger of chasing a moving, or even misguided, goal that may do little to mitigate the damage already done.

Policy makers are relying on big, bold headlines, yet few are looking for focused solutions to immediate problems. Those in progress aren’t getting enough attention or money. The days of overarching goals are over: We need clear outcomes and targets that address specific problems, with a defined way to finance them.

We must also work out what is getting in the way of EV adoption and manufacturing. Leaving it to the market is no longer an option, and forcing regulatory deadlines is a bit draconian at this point. Getting a better handle on what automakers’ issues are — whether it’s cost, technology, manufacturing at scale or margins — is a good starting point. Should emissions become a public infrastructure and urban planning issue where administrations encourage fewer vehicles, regular or electric? How do we nudge consumers to get on board? A few million EVs may help but governments and companies should also address real fears and anxieties. Public capital must guide private money to priority areas.

Those are questions that few companies and countries are addressing in their big picture fantasies. It’s time to identify the roadblocks to real industry action and remove them before it’s too late. Or we’ll find ourselves at yet another summit, talking about yet more ambitious goals.


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