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Key Players Absent as Governments, Automakers Set 2040 End Date for Gas-Burning Car Sales

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India Aims to Halt Internal Combustion Car Sales by 2030

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Experts were pointing to the absence of some notable signatories and the need for clear infrastructure targets in the wake of a Wednesday morning declaration at the COP 26 summit in Glasgow, setting a 2040 deadline to end sales of gas-burning cars and vans.

“COP 26 marks the end of the road for the internal combustion engine,” Climate Group CEO Helen Clarkson said in a statement on the declaration. She added that countries like the United States, China, and Germany, all absent from the table on the COP’s Transport Day, were “on the wrong side of history.” 

Decarbonizing transportation is critical for reaching a 1.5°C target. The sector accounts for almost a quarter of global CO2 emissions from fossil fuels, and road vehicles account for 75% of that total. Through their capacity to cut down 80% of those emissions throughout their lifetime, electric vehicles (EVs) are seen as an essential component of any plan to cut back transportation emissions, Climate Group says. Electric vehicle technology has improved since the Paris Agreement was passed in 2015, and worldwide sales have increased tenfold.

The declaration at COP 26 describes its signatories as “representatives of governments, businesses, and other organizations with an influence over the future of the automotive industry and road transport.” The 33 countries that signed represent 18% of the global car market. Six big manufacturers account for a third of all U.S. car sales in 2019—GM, Ford, Mercedes Benz, Volvo, Jaguar Land Rover, and Shenzhen, China-based BYD—also supported the declaration.

“For the first time it brings together leading governments, cities, regions, businesses, financial institutions, and multilateral development banks. They commit to work together towards making sure every new car and van sold is zero-emission by 2040 globally, and by 2035 in leading markets,” said U.K. Transport Minister Trudy Harrison.

But there were some notable absences on the list of signatories. The two largest car markets in the world, China and the U.S., both kept their names off the list, though several U.S. cities like New York, Dallas, and Los Angeles did sign on. According to the Financial Times, China was hesitant to take on another “tedious” emissions goal, and the U.S. held back because President Joe Biden was concerned about domestic backlash. Germany, the largest car market in the EU, also withheld its support, opting to pursue a synthetic fuel option instead.

Those decisions were a key factor that kept some major automakers from embracing the declaration, like Toyota and Volkswagen, the Times says.

Toyota said it decided not to sign the declaration because its status a global business would make fulfilling the commitment “difficult,” says the Economic Times. Toyota has been producing EVs since 1997, and the company says that it will continue pursuing zero- and low-emission technologies—but considers it more important to take account of different countries, regions, and environments than to have a joint pledge.

Volkswagen held back from the declaration, as well, despite recent comments from CEO Herbert Diess saying the company would see job losses if it lagged in electrification. Volkswagen’s decision to abstain from the declaration is also surprising because the company is one of only two EU car manufacturersdeemed to be on track to meet electrification goals, based on analysis by European clean transport non-profit Transport & Environment (T&E). VW said the accelerated shift envisioned by the signatories must go hand in hand with a larger transition to 100% renewable energy.

“While the overall global goal of reaching zero emissions in line with the Paris Agreement is non-negotiable, regions developing at a different speed, combined with different local prerequisites, need different pathways towards zero emissions,” a Volkswagen representative said.

Supporters of the declaration agreed that more work is needed. Ford Motors Global Director Cynthia Williams, Global Director at Ford said the signatories “need to partner together with others and bring battery costs down, and to bring component engineering to local and regional areas to ensure that we are building efficiently and effectively.” Williams stressed the need to make EVs more accessible to the public, especially given past reports showing low consumer demand as a barrier to ramping up production.

Williams said countries also need more EV charging infrastructure so “people can get in a vehicle and feel comfortable that they can get from point A to point B with no issues.” Analysis from S&P Global also identified infrastructure as an important step in helping consumers get over “range anxiety” and smoothing the path to a decarbonized system.

S&P projected that the U.S. will have 21 million EVs on the road by 2030 requiring, between 1.4 and 2.1 million charging stations, but there are only 120,000 ports currently available.

But the statements from both signatories and critics point out that there are still major steps to be taken, and some organizations said there needs to be a clear, enforceable path forward, as well as involvement from the large car-market countries.

“The car industry’s electrification plans place it ahead of regulators on climate action. But these won’t materialize without actual targets to end car emissions by 2035 at the latest. The U.S. and Europe, especially Germany and France, need to lead,” said Julia Poliscanova, senior director for vehicles and e-mobility at T&E.

Emissions will also have to drop across other sectors, like aviation, in order to achieve transportation sector climate targets. And on that score aviation sector declaration announced Wednesday is “too weak to reduce flying’s climate impact,” T&E warned. The declaration relied too heavily on the International Civil Aviation Organization’s carbon offsetting scheme, which will only distract from “real measures to clean up flying in the near term.” said T&E.

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