The report forecasts widespread issues by 2040, without any substantive change.
Photo: Justin Sullivan (Getty)

A new report from the United Nations offers a terrifying and stark forecast of the immediate consequences of climate change—far worse than previous thought, as The New York Times put it. One particular noteworthy point offered up is a call for cities to transition to electrification, and fast.

The report, issued on Monday by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said worsening food shortages, wildfires, and more, can be expected as soon as 2040, unless the world dramatically transforms the global economy at a speed and scale that has “no documented historic precedent,” the Times reported. How comforting.

Here’s more from the Times:

The report “is quite a shock, and quite concerning,” said Bill Hare, an author of previous I.P.C.C. reports and a physicist with Climate Analytics, a nonprofit organization. “We were not aware of this just a few years ago.” The report was the first to be commissioned by world leaders under the Paris agreement, the 2015 pact by nations to fight global warming.

The authors found that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at the current rate, the atmosphere will warm up by as much as 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) above preindustrial levels by 2040, inundating coastlines and intensifying droughts and poverty. Previous work had focused on estimating the damage if average temperatures were to rise by a larger number, 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius), because that was the threshold scientists previously considered for the most severe effects of climate change.

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The report’s fourth chapter digs into transportation-related needs, showing a tremendous amount of work must be done, but, on its face, that work seems like an, uh, impossible feat.

For instance:

The electrification of urban systems, including transport, has shown global progress since AR5 (IEA, 2016a; Kennedy et al., 2018; Kenworthy and Schiller, 2018). High growth rates are now appearing in electric vehicles (Figure 4.1), electric bikes and electric transit (IEA, 2018), which would need to displace fossil-fuel powered passenger vehicles by 2035–2050 to remain in line with 1.5 degree C-consistent pathways.

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Automakers are no doubt moving toward electrification, but we’re still several years away from a flood of EVs hitting the market. And the reality is, EVs still represent a mere fraction of total sales. Automakers are beholden to the market, and if car buyers don’t shift on their own to electrification, it’s hard to imagine anything short of an outright ban on gas-powered cars compelling the sort of dramatic shift described as necessary in the UN’s report.

There’s also this:

In cities where private vehicle ownership is expected to increase, less carbon-intensive fuel sources and reduced car journeys will be necessary as well as electrification of all modes of transport.

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What immediately jumped to mind here is the notion that EVs will catch on in cities across the world, and in the U.S. But owning an EV in a city can be a goddamn hassle. While walking my dog yesterday, for example, I saw a neighbor pitching an extension cord out his apartment door and to the street, so he could charge his Prius Prime.

And yet what the UN is suggesting is that it’ll be necessary for cities where private vehicle ownership is expected to increase to transition to electrification. Ride-hailing is only making congestion worse, so the type of policy changes needed to achieve this sort of thing feels ... like quite a tall order?

I know the industry and some car enthusiasts shudder about policy proposals calling for a ban of gas-powered cars, even 20 years from now, but this report underscores the drastic sort of change that’s needed to salvage worldwide catastrophe. And it needs to start now.