As Emissions Spike, VW Announces an End to Oil-Powered Cars

CC BY 2.0. Marco Verch

The timeline needs some work. But this is a start...

In yet more disturbing climate news, carbon emissions reached a record high in 2018, dashing the hopes of folks who had celebrated a temporary stall between 2014 and 2016 as a turning point.

It's clear that emissions reductions are going to have to drastically pick up pace if we're to head off the worst dangers of climate change. Yet despite the current direction of travel, there are signs that a turning point could be—ahem—around the corner. Maersk just committed to phasing out carbon emissions from shipping by 2050. A US utility just pledged to go carbon free (admittedly following in the footsteps of other utilities around the world who have already achieved this); and US coal plant retirements are still at record highs.

Now let's add another data-point to the mix. As Bloomberg reports, Volkswagen have just announced the end of the oil-powered car. Specifically, they've pledged that the generation of cars currently being worked on is the last that isn't 'CO2 neutral'.

What exactly that means is a little unclear. The Bloomberg report suggests there may still be fossil fuel cars in the mix as late as 2050 where charging infrastructure is inadequate (really, by 2050!?), but the German-language Handelsblatt has a more distinct—and less depressing—version of the VW timeline, translated on Twitter by Kees van Der Leun:

This is considerably more promising. And still not enough.

Just as there is a world of difference between the UK banning fossil fuel-only cars by 2040, and Denmark doing it by 2030, the speed at which we transition is literally all that matters now.

That said, I welcome every increase in ambition, because it makes it that much easier to ratchet it up a further notch later. It's unrealistic to assume that plans are going to go from woefully inadequate to sufficient overnight—but even as laggards like VW get with the program, they increase the momentum and the infrastructure for others to speed ahead. What Tesla has done in the California automotive market, for example, is likely to be replicated elsewhere, leaving VW's actual timeline in the dust. And, ironically, the existence of that timeline will help to make it happen.

Make no mistake, record high global carbon emissions are a very serious threat. But we now have an opportunity to start changing things fast.