This week, a major climate change conference is taking place in Paris. Delegates roam the city's streets, carrying briefcases, laptops, and jump drives loaded with plans to avert the climatological catastrophe that awaits us.*
Unfortunately, as the New York Times reports, there are no easy fixes for global warming or its effects on weather patterns, sea levels, and myriad other things. In fact, there aren't that many complicated fixes either, once you consider all the political, economic, and social hurdles that stand in the way of real change.
Sadly, cars are a big part of the problem.
THE PROBLEM WITH CARS
Given all the coverage that electric vehicles like the Tesla Model X receive in the press, you might think that the auto industry is on the verge of a major shift toward cleaner technologies. There's some truth in that, but the truth isn't keeping up with everyday realities.
Yes, we are making huge strides in the field of battery technology, and given massive investments of capital from the tech and auto sectors, the pace of improvement should accelerate in the coming years. If the numbers of cars and motorists were to remain steady during that time, we might be able to phase out many of our gas and diesel vehicles.
Alas, that's not going to happen. The planet's population is exploding, and with it, the number of people in the middle class who want all the perks that their new-found middle class status brings, including car ownership. No matter how quickly we improve our batteries -- and the creaky electrical grids that keep those batteries topped off -- it's unlikely that those advances will keep up with the demand for automobiles.
How many cars will people want? Enough to double the earth's population of cars over the next 15 years. There are currently one billion vehicles on the road, and by 2030 that number is on pace to hit two billion (PDF).
Let's repeat: one billion additional vehicles within 15 years.
Obviously, 15 years is a very short timeframe. The transition to hybrids and electric vehicles is picking up speed, but it's not moving quickly enough to keep up with such high demand for cars -- especially since many of those cars still come with premium pricetags.
As a result, it's likely that most of Planet Earth's additional one billion vehicles will run on fossil fuels. True, they'll be more efficient than they are now, but even if we were to halve our auto emissions output over the next 15 years, doubling the number of cars on the road would essentially wipe out our gains.
And of course, let's not forget that electrics bring their share of problems, too. Yes, they produce zero emissions, but providing the electricity those cars need to get from Point A to Point B isn't always clean. In fact, electricity production is the biggest source of greenhouse gases, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.**
Dwell too long on stats like these, and it's easy to throw up your hands. When you consider the many, many challenges before us -- not just crafting international policies that reduce greenhouse gasses, but also ensuring that other nations respect those policies and stick to them -- the task seems impossible. Heck, if Volkswagen is brazenly going to cheat on emissions tests, how can we ever hope that huge governments will play by the rules?
Furthermore, by many accounts, we've already passed some major tipping points. It will take years before the pollutants tossed into the air today begin to affect the planet's climate, and decades more before they begin to dissipate. Change is coming; the question is, how much change will we experience?
As we all know by now, inaction is not an option. Nor is pointing fingers at other countries and industries that need to get onboard with reducing emissions. That's a classic Soviet-era technique called "whataboutism", and it's a deeply flawed rhetorical dead-end.
Advancements in propulsion and battery technology can reduce greenhouse gases. But to make a serious attempt at fixing the problem of climate change, we'll probably have to change some of our less-sustainable habits. To learn about what some of those habits are, check this handy FAQ.
* Just to be clear: this isn't the place debate to the fact of climate change itself. That ship has sailed. Whether 97 percent of climatologists agree that things are heating up, or whether the figure lies closer to 91 percent, the science is solid. Today, it's not a question of whether we're experiencing climate change but the degree to which it will disrupt governments, economies, agriculture, and social systems.