Why Cars May Be the World’s Biggest Climate Problem



Climate change is upon us. Greenhouse gas emissions have reached an all-time high, and our changing climate has already caused ongoing worldwide megafires, sea level rise, intense heat waves and more.

Because climate change knows no bounds, the fight must be a worldwide effort.

For years, countries have known that a shift to clean energy is necessary, but leaders often fear the dangers a quick switch could impose on an economy.

So, in an effort to lead by example, Germany, a world power with a booming automotive industry, stepped up to the plate in 2007 and announced that the country would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by the year 2020.

Unfortunately, Germany is likely to fall short of its goal.

With less than two years to go, the country has successfully reduced emissions by 27 percent, which is a huge feat.

But the primary barrier holding Germany back from reaching its goal is the same industry that keeps its economy prosperous — automotives.

“At the time they set their goals, they were very ambitious,” Patricia Espinosa, the lead United Nations envoy on climate change, told Bloomberg . “It was a political statement that the chancellor was trying to make. What happened was that the industry — particularly the car industry — didn’t come along. Technically they can do it. Economically they can do it. But it’s political.”

It is political for a lot of reasons, but cars for many people represent freedom, a sense of personal ability to travel anywhere at any time.

But, a change is necessary, and a cultural shift may be imperative.

While it may not be easy, Germany’s inability to reach its goal should be a huge wake-up call to all countries. Without serious and difficult adjustments, the world cannot efficiently tackle climate change.

Cars are to blame

A NASA study from 2010 showed that automobiles were the world’s largest net contributor to climate change pollution. Vehicles emit many pollutants and greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming, and they release very few aerosols designed to counteract harmful emissions.

In the U.S., a report from the Rhodium Group proved that transportation is the single largest source for CO2 emissions for the second year in a row. A slight turn away from fossil fuels has caused greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector to drop, but there has been nearly no adjustments made to transportation.

Until we make a complete switch to renewable energy sources, electric cars won’t be a reliable alternative either. If electric cars are using energy from coal to re-charge, they might be creating more emissions than traditional cars that runs on gasoline.

Cars are impractical

Although cars have rivaled dogs for decades as man’s best friend, they seem increasingly less practical as people move more and more into the urban areas.

The average speed of a car in midtown Manhattan is 4.7 mph, which is barely above walking speed.

If you cross the country to Los Angeles, you will be in the world’s most congested city, primarily due to the fact that it doesn’t have a sufficient public transportation system. Drivers in Los Angeles spent 104 hours on average driving in congestion during “peak travel periods” last year.

“The problem is that owning cars (especially fuel-powered cars) is bad, but there’s no real alternative,” said Kate Brunton, a representative from Amber, a Dutch self-driving car startup.

“It’s bad for consumers, because the cost of ownership of most cars is high, and it’s bad for the environment because it’s harmful, and it’s inefficient. Most cars just end up spending 90 percent of their time standing still.”

Considering cars spend so much time standing still, idling in traffic, and are often used to transport one person at a time, maybe it is time to question whether they are worth the environmental and infrastructure costs that they impose.

Waste money, fuel and lives

Cars cost too much. They can waste your money and, more importantly, can cost you your life.

Accounting for monthly payments, fuel, insurance and maintenance, the average car owner spends $12,544 a year on their car. SUVs cost people even more, at $14,452.

When you get behind a wheel, you are also risking your life. In 2015, more than 3,000 Americans died from traffic incidents every month.

The tailpipe emissions are also proven to be deadly. Automobiles push out many toxins that can cause cancer, asthma and lung disease. A study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimated that 53,000 Americans die early every year from vehicle pollution.

“Green” alternatives

At this point, it is unrealistic to rid the world of cars. But, serious adjustments can be made.

Countries must continue to invest in renewable energy, so that electric cars can be charged sufficiently without the need to use coal.

Governments can enact laws that require car companies to drastically improve fuel efficiency in vehicles.

And most importantly, cities need to develop more sustainable methods of public transportation.

Some urban areas have turned to installing greenways to limit the use of cars and buses.

A study from the University of British Columbia (UBC) showed that people living near Vancouver’s Comox-Helmcken Greenway reduced daily car and bus travel distance by 18 percent after the greenway was built.

“Greenways provide a dedicated safe pathway for people to walk or bike to places,” said Lawrence Frank, a professor in sustainable transport at UBC and lead author of the study.

“They enhance the experience of walking and cycling through improvements, such as protected lanes for cyclists, age-friendly and safe pedestrian features, such as curb ramps and raised crosswalks, increased landscaping and vegetation, and other public realm amenities, such as seating, drinking fountains and wayfinding features.”

An increase in efficient, sustainable transportation could let people living in urban areas forget about their cars, and would limit the environmental and personal dangers imposed by vehicles.

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