Environment America Blog

We have until today’s first graders graduate high school to upgrade to electric cars.

The window of opportunity is quickly shrinking to take bold action to slow global warming. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s most recent report, we have 12 years -- at most -- to drastically reduce pollution that is warming our atmosphere, and avoid the worst impacts of climate change. In other words, we have until today’s first graders graduate high school to ensure a livable climate for future generations.

We’ve known about global warming for decades, but with new research, we’re seeing just how quickly the problem is accelerating. Climate change is already affecting people all over the world, and here at home too. Over the past year, massive hurricanes -- fueled by warmer ocean temperatures -- barreled into the U.S., one after the other. In the west, drier conditions sparked devastating wildfires in some of our most beautiful forests.

To avoid even more severe impacts, we must get our act together to address the cause: global warming pollution. The IPCC found that to stay at or below 1.5°C, we have to cut global warming pollution 45 percent below 2010 levels by 2030, and 100 percent by 2050. Those kinds of reductions would entail shutting down all coal and natural gas power plants, and phasing out vehicles powered by diesel or gasoline. There is no wiggle room when half a degree of warming could cause sea level rise to displace millions more people, or the death of all of our coral reefs.

In the U.S., the number one source of global warming pollution is the transportation sector -- cars, trucks, buses, scooters and everything we use to get from point A to point B. It doesn’t have to be that way. The technology for electric vehicles (EVs) has improved exponentially, with longer ranges and better batteries, and there are many models that don’t pollute available to consumers right now. Electric buses are also sweeping the nation, from King County, Wash. to Dallas, Texas.

In order to make sure that every car on the road is is a zero-emission vehicle by 2050 -- the deadline for eliminating virtually all global warming pollution -- all models being sold must be electric by 2035 (an electric car isn’t zero-emission until it can be powered entirely by renewable energy). Working backwards, for those that buy one of the last gas-guzzling cars in 2035, those cars could continue to pollute for 10-15 years.

It may be hard to imagine that in less than 20 years, when you go to buy a car, your only option will be a zero-emission car, but we can and we must get there. The automotive industry is beginning to move in the right direction, announcing more EV model debuts in the next five years. This month we saw the 1 millionth EV hit the road in the U.S., due to a steady rise in EV sales. In 2017, annual electric car sales exceeded 100,000 for the first time.

Though we’re seeing the impacts of climate change sooner than expected, the clean energy revolution is picking up momentum. We need a bold vision of an all-electric transportation system, so that cars are more efficient and help us achieve a safe, livable climate. We have a lot of work to do to tackle the biggest challenge of the century, and not much time to do it.

I’m confident we will be able to change because of how quickly new technology can emerge and spread. Twelve years ago, all my friends had Razr flip phones. Now, with smartphones, they’re relics of the past. We can see rapid change and widespread adoption of EVs, but we need individuals, local governments, states and companies to make ambitious commitments to electrifying transportation.

Together, let’s make our old, outdated and dirty transportation system go the way of the Razr flip phone.