Can we zero our car emissions quickly enough with electric cars alone, or will public transit also need expansion?

In short, and in relation to the first part of the question, the answer is, “No,” said Sarah Kaufman, the associate director for the Rudin Center for Transportation and a professor at New York University’s  Wagner School.

Tailpipe emissions make up a massive amount of the country’s carbon emissions, and Kaufman said both electrifying vehicles and expanding public transit—which transports more people for less energy than private vehicles—are needed to avoid the worst of the climate crisis by the end of the century.

In the United States, transportation is the largest contributing sector of carbon dioxide emissions, making up nearly a third of the country’s total emissions, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency. Private vehicles make up about 60 percent of that.

So how long would it take to electrify enough vehicles to “zero out” those transportation-related emissions? Kaufman said she doesn’t know. But, she said, what she does know is that even if we electrified the more than 270,000 vehicles on U.S. roads today, the nation’s power grid wouldn’t be able to handle it—especially with climate change increasingly straining it with extreme weather and heat.

In August 2020, a series of extreme storms in the Northeast and Midwest knocked out power for hundreds of thousands of people, while ongoing record-high temperatures in California forced utilities to shut off electricity for hundreds of thousands of customers to avoid overloading the power grid because of a massive spike in energy demand.

“If our grid can’t stand up to storms (or heat waves), then it certainly can’t power the amount of driving that Americans do,” she said. 

Kristoffer Tigue

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