The proof is in, and as reported in wired.com automobile transportation in the United States is responsible for 20 per cent of all carbon dioxide emissions. Add in planes, trains ships and freight and that number moves to 30 per cent.
In 2010, a NASA study declared that automobiles were officially the largest net contributor of climate change pollution in the world. “Cars, buses, and trucks release pollutants and greenhouse gases that promote warming, while emitting few aerosols that counteract it,” the study read. “In contrast, the industrial and power sectors release many of the same gases—with a larger contribution to [warming]—but they also emit sulfates and other aerosols that cause cooling by reflecting light and altering clouds.”
What that means is while generating power may emit more greenhouse gas, it also releases sulfates and cooling aerosols so that the impact is less than the private vehicle. And that’s bad news. While in Germany closing down coal-fired plants meant that green house gas emissions were lowered, emissions from transportation sources increased as car ownership and the booming economy meant more vehicles were on the road.
Germany after Japan and the USA is the number three automaker in the world, and having a vehicle is a cultural right. While Germany has admirably reduced their greenhouse gas emissions by 27 per cent, the next piece, arresting private car ownership, will be a challenge.
A similar phenomenon exists in the United States, where gas-guzzlers symbolize nearly every cliche point of American pride: affluence, capability for individual expression, and personal freedoms. Freedom, in particular, “is not a selling point to be easily dismissed,” Edward Humes wrote in The Atlantic in 2016. “This trusty conveyance, always there, always ready, on no schedule but its owner’s. Buses can’t do that. Trains can’t do that. Even Uber makes riders wait.”
In order for Germany to make emissions targets 50 per cent of people using cars need to switch to public transport, ride-sharing or bicycles. Such a shift would require policies banning cars from cities (Stuttgart is considering it) and wide-scale investment in public transport with good linkages.
The best response is a synergistic one, that combines “drastic improvements in fuel efficiency for gas-powered vehicles, while investing in renewable-powered electric car infrastructure. At the same time, cities would overhaul their public transportation systems, adding more bikes, trains, buses and ride-shares. Fewer people would own cars.
While we know that cars are killing people in crashes, there are also 53,000 people in the United States dying from vehicular pollution. Couple that with the serious injury resulting from car crashes and it’s time to stop this leading cause of death. The difference now is that it is a planetary pejorative to lower greenhouse gases, and that is best accomplished by offering sound alternatives to the use of the automobile. At this point, it is not only lives that depend upon it, but the future of the planet, and that messaging needs to be translated into strong policy now.