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How To Cut Vehicle-Related Carbon Emissions By 80%

Cars account for almost a fifth of all of our emissions, so a drastic reduction is key. But it’s not enough to just make cars more efficient. It’s going to take some revolutionary thinking.

The good news is that cars and light trucks could be radically cleaner by 2050, even without major technological breakthroughs. The bad news: It won’t happen without significant policy changes.

So says a big new report from the National Research Council that looks at ways to reduce U.S. petrol consumption and greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2050. It finds that highly efficient vehicles combined with power from biofuels, electricity, or hydrogen could achieve the goal. But government will have to "overcome high costs and influence consumer choices" through strong fuel economy standards, increased support for R&D, subsidies, and information campaigns.

Cars and light trucks contribute 17% of greenhouse emissions, and account for 50% of fuel consumption. The report says that increased efficiency is vital, but not sufficient to meet the 2050 targets. Vehicles would need to go 180 miles per gallon—an unrealistic number. So, business needs to develop alternative technologies.

The report explores the potential of biofuels, electricity, and hydrogen. It expects that hydrogen-powered vehicles will be cheaper than conventional cars and trucks by 2050 (partly because they won’t rely on expensive batteries). But building out a new fueling infrastructure will be costly. Using natural gas, meanwhile, could reduce petrol consumption, but isn’t a long-term option to meet greenhouse gas goals.

The report assumes the alternatives are all likely to be more expensive than what we have now (taking everything into account)—even by 2050. So, government needs to offer "feebates" to people who buy higher efficiency models, while making dirtier fuel more expensive:

Several types of policies including a price floor for petroleum-based fuels or taxes on petroleum based fuels could create a price signal against petroleum demand, assure producers and distributors that there is a profitable market for alternative fuels, and encourage consumers to reduce their use of petroleum-based fuels. High fuel prices, whether due to market dynamics or taxes, are effective in reducing fuel use.

As for R&D, it recommends public investment in "fuel cells, batteries, biofuels, low-GHG production of hydrogen, carbon capture and storage, and vehicle efficiency," including demonstration projects once they have reached scale. It warns against promoting technology before it’s "close to market readiness."

Finally, the report recommends de-politicizing decision-making:

The committee suggests that an expert review process independent of the agencies implementing the deployment policies and also independent of any political or economic interest groups advocating for the technologies being evaluated be used to assess available data, and predictions of costs and performance.

The conclusions aren’t particularly novel, or, frankly, exciting to read. But, coming from a committee of well-respected experts, the 395-page report is comprehensive and trustworthy. It shows, as others have done, that the future isn’t hopeless—but also that it won’t happen on its own.