Watch CBS News

Shift to electric cars happening too slowly to avoid "climate catastrophe," report finds

Biden unveils $900 million electric vehicle plan
Biden unveils $900 million electric vehicle plan 01:58

Major automakers and governments have avowed that the future of cars is electric. And with transportation making up about a quarter of the carbon pollution emitted by humanity, scientists say phasing out gas- and diesel-powered cars is imperative for there to be any hope of avoiding the worst effects of global warming.

But the shift away from fossil-fuel burning cars is happening too slowly to stave off climate catastrophe, according to a report released by Greenpeace this week.

"Leading auto manufacturers, including Toyota, Volkswagen, and Hyundai, are transitioning far too slowly to zero-emission vehicles, which has dangerous consequences for our planet," Benjamin Stephan, climate campaigner at Greenpeace Germany, said in a statement. "Toyota, Volkswagen and other leading automakers are on a collision course with the climate."

The researchers calculated how many new gas-guzzlers humanity can afford to put on the roads, assuming that global temperatures are on track to rise 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Keeping global heating below that level is essential to avoid catastrophic effects, including runaway ice melt and sea-level rise, scientists say.

U.N. says world is heading in "wrong direction" on climate change 05:02

Under that limit, the world's carmakers can build and sell 315 million gas-burning cars between now and 2050, Greenpeace calculated. However, carmakers have already planned to produce and sell nearly twice that number of gas-burning cars, the group's analysis found — 645 million to 778 million light-duty vehicles over the next 25 years.

The report closely analyzed the stated electrification plans of four automakers that make up 40% of the world's cars: GM, Hyundai/Kia, Toyota and the Volkswagen Group. Two of them have set dates to eliminate fossil-fueled cars: GM by 2035, and Kia by 2045.

Toyota and Volkswagen have no target date to go all-electric. VW had previously set 2040 as its target, while Toyota's CEO has resisted the all-electric push, recently saying the EV transition will take longer than many believe. Toyota did not immediately reply to a request for comment from CBS MoneyWatch.

If Greenpeace's projections bear out, the amount of carbon pollution created by all those extra cars would equal that put out by all buildings globally, the nonprofit said — a massive overshoot that would be hard to counter by reducing carbon emissions elsewhere.

The report's authors come from the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney, the Center of Automotive Management, University of Applied Sciences (FHDW) Bergisch Gladbach, and Greenpeace Germany. 

U.N. says world is heading in "wrong direction" on climate change 05:02

Combustion engine bubble

Those vehicles have another possible fate, Greenpeace noted. The cars could be produced but not sold — a result that would leave carmakers with millions of vehicles that consumers don't want and the companies can't offload. Carmakers "face considerable business and financial risks, ranging from loss of market share to new all-electric entrants to stranded assets," the report said, noting that potential losses could top $2 trillion globally.

"Hence, not only auto industry executives but also bankers and investors should take the risk of a bursting [internal combustion engine] bubble seriously and mitigate it by using their influence to accelerate auto manufacturers' transition to electric vehicles," they wrote.

California is first state to ban sale of gas-powered vehicles 01:33

The report highlights a sometimes forgotten aspect of the EV transition: Gas-burning cars will continue to be driven on roads and highways for years after the last one rolls off the assembly line. With the average age for a car now over 12 years, that means even if automakers' electrify in the next few decades, there would still be carbon-emitting cars on roads well past the middle of this century.

That reality has led some countries and states to set more ambitious goals for phasing out gas cars. The U.K. aims to stop selling new fossil-fuel cars by 2030, and California has pledged to do so by 2035. Greenpeace is calling on car makers to follow suit and ditch the gas-burning engine by the end of the decade.

"Car companies need to stop selling diesel and petrol vehicles, including hybrids, by 2030 at the latest," said Greenpeace's Stephan.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.