What Happens To The Climate If Automakers Slow Down Their Electric Vehicle Goals?

There’s no direct line to draw between the demise of a specific ice shelf in Antarctica and whether or not the majority of Americans choose to buy electric vehicles—science doesn’t quite work that way. But there’s no denying that phasing out gas-powered cars is going to be a crucial part of keeping us all from getting totally cooked. 

Some of the U.S.’s most powerful car companies have a surprisingly large impact on global emissions—but if recent headlines are any indication, they’re having a lot of unexpected trouble transitioning to the all-electric futures they’ve committed to. If these automakers back out of their EV commitments, what would happen to the planet? 

The world has warmed 1.1 degrees Celsius—2 degrees Fahrenheit—since we started aggressively burning fossil fuels during the Industrial Revolution. Scientists agree that letting that warming get much higher than where we are currently could incur the kinds of potential futures you’ve probably seen in catastrophic headlines: runaway sea level rise, collapsing glaciers, and (literally) killer heat. 

The Paris Agreement, which nearly every country agreed to in 2015, aims to avoid those dire futures by setting some hard limits for emissions. The Agreement dictates that we need to keep the world from warming 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century in a best-case scenario, and keep warming under 2 degrees Celsius if we can’t make that more aggressive target happen. (Spoiler alert: we’re going to be lucky if we keep under 2 degrees, with the way things are going.) 

Every business pledge to reach “net zero” or promise to become more “sustainable”—including carmakers’ EV plans—are based around calculations involving these two numbers. Those numbers, and the tightening regulations around them, are why a number of automakers have committed to going all-electric by some future date: General Motors by 2035, Mercedes-Benz by 2030 in most of its major markets, Volkswagen by the 2030s and so on. Other car companies have pledged a mix of hybrids or hydrogen vehicles as they race to cut emissions too. 

But let’s game this out: how much of a climate impact will those electrification moves actually make, and what happens if car companies decide to push back or cancel those goals—or if loosening regulations allow them to?

The world’s leading scientific body on climate change says that in order for us to have a 50% chance of keeping warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius—in non-scientific terms, a fair shot of staving off the worst impacts of climate change—we can only afford to emit 500 billion metric tons more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The 2 degrees target is a little more generous, but not much: our remaining carbon budget in that case is 1,350 billion metric tons. After that, our chances of averting disaster drop precipitously. 

It can be easy to lose the forest for the trees with a lot of these climate conversations. Five hundred billion metric tons, after all, seems like an incomprehensibly massive number. But diving into the numbers of just how much some U.S. carmakers alone are emitting by simply selling gas-powered cars each year really hammers home the importance of the EV transition—and makes their recent challenges moving to a zero-emission future even more troubling. 

Taking gasoline- and diesel-powered cars off the road is going to be an enormous part of keeping us under the global carbon budget. Global transport is responsible for about a fifth of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, and gas-powered cars, in turn, account for 75% of that number. The U.S., one of the world’s top polluters, contributes a lot of these emissions: transportation is currently the number one source of carbon emissions in the U.S. And some of America’s most historic brands—like General Motors, which held the biggest market share for cars sold in the U.S. last year, and Ford, which held the third-largest share—have had an outsize influence on these numbers.

We can divide emissions from big automakers into three categories, known in corporate climate-speak as “scopes.” Scope 1 emissions are from sources that a business owns directly, like company gas-powered cars, while Scope 2 are emissions that come from energy a company buys to power its operations; these types of emissions are usually pretty easy for a business to tally up and add to a corporate sustainability report. The last category, Scope 3 emissions, are generated by things the company doesn’t control, from business travel to employee commuting—to customer use of a product or service, like cars driven out of a dealer’s lot. For a lot of industries, this portion of Scope 3 emissions is particularly tricky to calculate. But for automakers, it’s a pretty straightforward math problem that combines the greenhouse gasses their cars emit, the number of cars they sell, and the average miles each car is driven over the course of its life cycle. 

That’s not to say that companies are eager to be transparent—most of the world’s biggest polluters, including carmakers, are very reluctant to reveal their Scope 3 emissions, even though they often far eclipse Scope 1 and 2 emissions. There are also no federal regulations requiring companies to disclose anything: Mercedes Benz, for instance, only reports the Scope 1 and 2 emissions from its vehicles in its sustainability reports. (There are some notable good actors here: Polestar, for instance, puts a pretty clear breakdown of its Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions near the top of its sustainability report.) But public and investor pressure to do something about the climate crisis has increased in recent years, forcing many big companies to air out some of this extra-dirty laundry. 

A look at these numbers that some automakers have reported recently is truly eye-opening. In 2022, for instance, Ford reported that the Scope 3 emissions generated from the 4.2 million cars it sold around the world made up around 319,568,185 metric tons of CO2 equivalents (CO2e). In other words, the cars Ford sold globally last year alone will, over the course of their lifetimes, generate greenhouse gas emissions higher than what the entire country of Taiwan emits each year. GM, meanwhile, reported that the Scope 3 emissions from cars it sold in 2022 were 208.6 million metric tons of CO2e—almost exactly as much as Ukraine emitted last year. 

These are massive numbers. To keep using those two companies as an example, just Ford and GM’s combined yearly sales for last year will generate more greenhouse gasses than what the 97 million people living in Vietnam did last year. And there’s reason to believe the actual number is much, much higher: a report issued last year estimated that the world’s carmakers are under-reporting their Scope 3 emissions by as much as 50%. When you think about just one or two companies releasing hundreds of millions of tons of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere with each sales year, suddenly, that 500 billion-ton carbon budget doesn’t seem so huge after all.  

If every automaker switched to all EVs tomorrow, those numbers wouldn’t go down completely to zero. Electric vehicles have their own associated emissions, depending on the type of energy provided on the grid they’re plugged into, to say nothing of what’s involved with EV and battery production. Meanwhile, many auto companies can still make—and are making—significant strides in reducing emissions by improving efficiency in gas-powered cars and rolling out hybrid models. 

Still, automakers including Ford and GM are undeniably large parts of the global decarbonization pie. What they produce matters on a scale that has few parallels with other consumer goods companies—and eliminating the bulk of their Scope 3 emissions, as their EV transition timelines intended to do, would have huge consequences for the world’s carbon budgets. GM’s plan to ramp up electric vehicle sales over the next decade and go all-electric by 2035, the company predicted last year, will lower its Scope 3 emissions by nearly 80% by the mid-2030s—mostly by eliminating gas-powered cars in favor of electric ones. (It’s also worth noting this is a long-term solution; few others exist for the millions of gas cars on the road currently that will be in service for decades to come.)

But in recent weeks, Ford has announced that it would be pausing some substantial investments in its EV transition, including a battery factory in Kentucky; meanwhile, GM CEO Mary Barra recently assured investors that the company was still committed to its 2035 target, but would be walking back certain sales targets and cutting costs elsewhere. This is all set against a doom-and-gloom drumbeat of automakers and car dealers complaining loudly that these electric vehicles simply won’t sell.

The message carmakers and the auto industry seem to want to send is that they’re all aboard the EV transition and all for saving the planet—but that new policies and regulations are just going a little too fast for them, and that politicians should take pity by letting them slow down and sell more gas-powered cars for just a little while longer. (Never mind that Ford alone hit a record sales month for EVs in November—a trend that is reflected across the industry—or that automakers keep clogging the market with huge and expensive electric SUVs, and not expanding into other, more affordable types of cars consumers want to buy.) It’s also worth noting that GM and Ford, as the two American automakers seeming to slow down their EV goals, make most of their profits from large, gas-powered trucks and SUVs, not economy cars. 

“I think a lot of automakers right now are caught in this Catch-22 of, you can’t make money on electric vehicles at low volume, so you have to get to volume, but to get to volume you have to make your prices lower—so it’s just making that leap of faith,” said Chris Harto, a senior policy analyst at Consumer Reports. “There’s going to be this difficult point where automakers will have to jump in with both feet—but that’s really difficult when you’re losing money on the EVs you’re selling today.”

Continued feet-dragging introduces a new dimension to the climate calculation: time. The world’s scientists have stressed over and over that this decade and the next are some of the most crucial decades for us to bring down carbon emissions. Some of Earth’s most critical ecosystems—like Antarctic ice sheets, which keep the continent’s enormous glaciers from melting into the sea and raising the ocean to catastrophic levels, or the world’s permafrost, which traps huge amounts of CO2 that is released into the air when the ground is too warm—are in danger right now of collapsing and speeding up the levels of runaway warming we’re already seeing. If the world keeps warming at the clip it’s at—and if companies like Ford and GM continue on a business-as-usual clip, spewing gargantuan amounts of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere with the cars they sell—then yes, we could reach a very bad turning point very soon. 

Automakers like to pretend we have time to wait for them to stop stalling on electric cars. Maybe their shareholders don’t like to hear this, but the truth is, when it comes to their incredibly outsize individual emissions, we don’t. 

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