The Auto Industry Alone Will Blow the 1.5-Degree Carbon Budget

It's making too many cars between now and 2030.

cars waiting to be loaded into Ro-Ro ship

Avigator Photographer/ Getty Images

A new study from researchers in Australia and Germany, published by Greenpeace in Germany, finds that internal combustion engine (ICE) light duty vehicles (LDVs, or cars, light trucks, and SUVs) alone could pump out as much as 116 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide.

The report, based on current projections by manufacturers, states: "Phasing out the internal combustion engine and fully electrifying LDV sales is necessary by 2030 to stay within a 1.5°C carbon budget. However, the industry’s plans—at least the plans of traditional manufacturers such as Volkswagen, Toyota, Hyundai/Kia, and GM—lead to projections of only 52% of battery electric vehicle sales by 2030."

Cue up the commentariat, who will say, "What 1.5-degree Celsius carbon budget? It's already blown." To which we respond that every fraction of a degree matters, every kilogram of carbon dioxide matters, and 116 gigatons matter whether you have a target or not. It is also not the entire carbon budget that the authors are thinking about—they are working from the Paris Agreement's 400 gigatons, much of which is already gone.

The report authors—from the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney (UTS), Center of Automotive Management, University of Applied Sciences (FHDW), and Greenpeace Germany—calculated the appropriate share of the carbon budget for cars, based on the current shares of emissions from industry sectors, and came up with 53 gigaton.

However, they note there's an ICE bubble on the horizon.

"Current car manufacturer planning is projected to create an ICE bubble of at least 330 to 463 million LDVs—vehicles the industry plans to sell and that exceed the number of possible sales under a 1.5°C-compatible carbon budget. Without significant changes in the structure of the LDV market (vehicle size, horsepower) and use patterns (vehicle life, mileage), the carbon budget of 53 Gt allows for the sale of an additional 315 million ICE vehicles as of 2022. At the same time, however, projected ICE sales range between at least 645 million and 778 million vehicles. This represents an overshoot of 105% to 147% compared to the 1.5°C-compatible number of ICE sales."
Global Battery Electric Vehicle Ramp-Up.

Professor Sven Teske et al

That's a lot of cars, and the problem is the transition to battery electric vehicles (BEVs) is happening too slowly. One issue is that Toyota is the world's largest manufacturer, and it has been dragging its feet. Surprisingly, the "who killed the electric car" company, General Motors, is the most aggressive.

Rates of change compared to 1.5 degrees


The green line is where we should be going, and the blue is the projected reality. The study authors said, "Phasing out the internal combustion engine, and fully electrifying LDV sales is necessary by 2030."

There is an additional problem with all these ICE cars: carbon lock-in. Someone buying an ICE-powered car in 2030 might be driving it for another 20 years, although finding a gas station might be problematic. But even if the manufacturers wanted to, finding batteries for the ice bubble 463 million vehicles is going to be interesting.

The numbers being thrown around, over three-fourths of a billion new cars, are daunting; they haven't even mentioned the upfront carbon released while building them all. The immediate Treehugger response to these numbers is to build fewer cars and provide alternatives. The study authors mentioned this in their conclusions: "A shift from individual transport systems such as passenger vehicles to public transport and non-energy mobility, such as cycling and walking, is essential and would reduce the required number of new BEVs."

They also noted the difficulties ahead:

"To meet the 1.5°C goal, leading automakers must transition to 100 percent BEV sales by 2030. This must go hand in hand with expanding the required charging infrastructure and generating renewable electricity to charge EV batteries. Securing scarce raw materials for battery production sustainably is an additional challenge. Therefore, automakers must focus on the entire value chain of electromobility, which can have a positive mid- and long-term effect on company value."

Whether by finding alternatives to lithium or getting everyone on bikes, we have to figure out how to not build about 463 million gasoline-powered cars in the next seven years. I keep saying that the hard truth is that we have to make hard choices right now instead of just letting 1.5 degrees sail by because it is too expensive or inconvenient. This is one of those hard choices.

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