Surging sales of large gasoline pickups and SUVs are undermining carbon reductions from electric cars

Replacing petroleum fuels with electricity is crucial for curbing climate change because it cuts carbon dioxide emissions from transportation – the largest source of U.S. global warming emissions and a growing source worldwide. Even including the impacts of generating electricity to run them, electric vehicles provide clear environmental benefits.

Plug-in vehicles are making great progress, with their share of U.S. car and light truck sales jumping from 2% to 4% in 2020-2021 and projected to exceed 6% by the end of 2022. But sales of gas-guzzling pickups and SUVs are also surging. This other face of the market subverts electric cars’ carbon-cutting progress.

As a researcher who studies transportation and climate change, it’s clear to me that EVs provide large carbon reductions that will grow as the electric grid shifts to carbon-free energy. But fleetwide emissions, including vehicles of all types and ages, are what ultimately matters for the climate.

While the latest policy advances will speed the transition to EVs, actual emission reductions could be hastened by tightening greenhouse gas emissions standards, especially for the larger gasoline-powered personal trucks that dominate transportation’s carbon footprint. Because it takes 20 years to largely replace the on-road automobile fleet, gas vehicles bought today will still be driving and emitting carbon dioxide in 2040 and beyond.