Let’s start with a simple reality: Gas-guzzling cars represent a clear and present danger to our future.
A dozen years ago, that reality seemed to be sinking in. Automakers, as CarBuzz analyst Jay Traugott notes, were rushing subcompacts to market to compete for car-buyer dollars. But that rush didn’t last long. In the decade after 2010, SUVs turned out to be “the second-largest contributor to the increase in global C02 emissions.”
Last year, amid a slumping overall auto market, SUVs kept surging, accounting for some 46 percent of global car sales. SUV oil consumption, reports the International Energy Agency, jumped in 2022 by 500,000 barrels per day.
Electric SUVs, the IEA adds, do make up a rising share of the SUV market. Unfortunately, these electric SUVs require larger batteries than smaller electric vehicles and impose new pressures on battery supply chains.
And all electric vehicles, observes the U.S. Environmental Protection Administration, also create carbon emissions “during both the production and distribution of the electricity used to fuel the vehicle.” Sums up MIT research scientist Sergey Paltsev: “We shouldn’t claim victory that with this switch to electric cars, problem solved, we are going to have zero emissions.”
Just building the battery for the Tesla Model 3 alone, MIT researchers point out, “creates between 2.5 and 16 metric tons of CO2.”
Tesla’s electric cars have also created something else: the fortune of the world’s second-richest soul, Elon Musk. The Bloomberg Billionaire Index currently puts Musk’s net worth at over $160 billion, up so far this year nearly $25 billion at the beginning of May.
Musk hardly rates as the only amply rewarded auto industry exec. The CEO of auto supply giant Nvidia, Jensen Huang, pocketed $560.9 million in 2021. General Motors CEO Mary Barra collected $29 million in 2022 compensation, on top of $62 million in 2021 and $40 million the year before. Overall top executive pay in the auto industry jumped by 78 percent in 2021.
All that hefty compensation gives auto industry execs a powerful incentive to keep making oodles of autos. Going that route, notes the UK Trades Union Congress in a just-published new report prepared with researchers from Transport for Quality of Life, makes no climate sense whatsoever.
To have any hope of reaching 2030 emissions targets, TUC trade unionists posit, we would need to reduce total car mileage by “at least 20 percent.” Just transitioning to electric cars won’t get us there.
What will? “A modal shift to public transport” that includes a 120 percent increase in journeys by buses and trolleys and an 80 percent hike in rail journeys. A shift at that bold a level, the new TUC report details, would create huge gains in economic productivity and create 140,000 new UK jobs working directly in bus, trolley, and train operations. Some 830,000 additional jobs, between now and 2035, would come from creating the new infrastructure needed for this shift to public transport.
But the benefits wouldn’t stop there. Over a third of low-income UK households now have no access to cars. The shift to a much more vibrant public transport infrastructure “will extend social and economic inclusion by increasing routes and reducing journey time, aiding journeys for accessing work, public services, retail, leisure, family, and friends.” And a greater reliance on public transport will bring multiple health benefits, with many of those coming from the walking and cycling needed to access public transport pick-up points.
“Investing in public transport,” stresses TUC general secretary Paul Nowak, “will help us meet net zero targets and reduce the threat of catastrophic climate change.”
“Commuters will have faster and cheaper journeys to work,” Nowak adds. “New connections will bring new businesses to places where people need economic opportunities. We will save lives with cleaner air. And we will reduce loneliness and isolation by making everyone better connected, wherever you live.”
The one thing more public transport most definitely will not do? Ensure auto industry top execs ever more years of mega-million paydays.
Sam Pizzigati co-edits Inequality.org. His latest books include The Case for a Maximum Wage and The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970. Twitter: @Too_Much_Online.