Climate Change Is a Global Problem, so Why Are We Solving It Piecemeal?

Much attention is paid to the auto industry's impact on climate change and its efforts to reduce pollution, but that attention is too narrowly focused to bring about real solutions.

Progress used to mean more. Growing more food. Printing more books. Building more cars. Today, progress means less, or rather, using less. Growing food with less pesticide. Reading with less paper. Driving with less gasoline. We will continue to make progress of the old sort, but its relative importance is diminished by our nascent capacity to reshape the entire world in all manner of horrific ways, not the least of which is CO2 emissions. Luckily, many have realized the awesomeness of this power and are working diligently to contain it.

Among the fields which contribute to climate change, none is more visible to end consumers than transportation. Americans own over 200 million vehicles [1] and they play an important role our lives and our identities, but also in pollution. 26% of U.S. emissions are from transportation [2]. It is only natural then, that those diligent workers turn their attention to cars and the ways in which we can limit their impact on the planet.

Transportation accounts for 26% of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.
Exhibit 1: Transportation accounts for 26% of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

Ask anyone in the United States how we are doing so, and you’ll likely hear about the efforts of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in raising fuel economy standards and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in verifying and publicizing actual fuel economy. Unfortunately, neither of these is as effective as we like to think. Unless we can fully grasp the context in which cars exist, we will continue to pass the buck and feel good about weak solutions to a dire problem.

The simplest of all our failures is one of convenience. The NHTSA sets fuel economy targets for each vehicle based on two criteria:

  1. The “footprint” of the vehicle, which is the wheelbase (distance between front and rear tires) multiplied by the average track width (distance between the left and right tires).
  2. Whether or not the vehicle is a truck. [3]

While these are reasonable criteria from an engineering standpoint, they allow consumers to continue polluting without feeling the cost of doing so. We do not excuse consumers for buying muscle cars. Why do we excuse them for buying SUVs? If we are to reduce the consumption of gasoline, we must give consumers a tangible reason to change. As long as the EPA consider the Porsche Cayenne to be a truck [4] and excuse it from meeting passenger vehicle standards, we wont be exerting the necessary pressure to drive real change in consumer choices. [5]

The far more complicated failure is in the narrow-minded way we view how cars pollute. That is, what comes out of the back of them. Under this model, all-electric cars (EVs) like the Tesla Model S are the pinnacle of efficiency: no gasoline, no emissions. But this view allows us to escape the realities of our impact on the planet by pushing the problem upstream. We do this in two ways, both of which must be incorporated into our model of pollution.

First, we do not consider the pollution emitted during the production of the vehicle. In some cases, like the Nissan Leaf, the production of the battery alone can release 75% as much CO2 equivalent as producing the entire rest of the car [6]. Making up for this compared to a gasoline car can require tens of thousands of miles of driving. Yet, these cars come with EPA window stickers proudly proclaiming they emit no CO2. Incorporating the production emissions when calculating the environmental impact and creating an incentive to ensure that pollution can’t be pushed upstream, out of the model, will be necessary to create truly clean cars.

But even this won’t be enough, because the electricity that powers electric vehicles isn’t all that clean either. The United States generates its electricity from numerous sources, but so much of it comes from coal that in most states EVs are more polluting than efficient gasoline powered cars [6]. That beacon of technological progress, the Tesla Model S, is more polluting in 46 states than the mundane Lexus ES hybrid [6]. Once again, our intuition is out-matched by the complexity of the problem, and the praise we render unto ourselves is as yet unwarranted. EVs are a step in the right direction. But, once again, we need visibility into the totality of the problem, and incentives to change our behavior, in order to make impactful progress.

Hopefully, this doesn’t sound like an advertisement for the Ford Mustang GT350R. Quite the opposite, it is an argument for more conscientiousness, greater understanding, more innovation and less pollution. But that will only be accomplished if we expand our view to encompass the entire process of creating, powering, and running cars without concern for the whims of consumers. If the NHTSA and EPA take a broader view of how cars pollute and encourage consumers to choose cleaner options, we might start to make real progress slowing climate change.



(798 words)

Cited Sources:

[1] “Number of U.S. Aircraft, Vehicles, Vessels, and Other Conveyances,” US Bureau of Transportation Statistics (February 2015), accessed 2 November 2016,

[2] “Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” US Environmental Protection Agency (last updated 6 October 2016), accessed 2 November 2016,

[3] “Light-Duty Vehicle Greenhouse Gas Emission Standards and Corporate Average Fuel Economy Standards; Final Rule” National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (May 2010), accessed 2 November 2016,

[4] “Code of Federal Regulations Title 40 – Protection of the Environment” United States Government Publishing Office (July 2015), accessed 2 November 2016,

[5] Kate S Whitefoot, Steven J. Skerlos, “Design incentives to increase vehicle size created from the U.S. footprint-based fuel economy standards,” Energy Policy (February 2012), accessed 2 November 2016,

[6] Daniel Yawitz et al, “A Roadmap to Climate-Friendly Cars: 2013,” Climate Central (revised September 2013), accessed 2 November 2016,

Photo Credits:

Exhibit 1:




To fish or not to fish…

Student comments on Climate Change Is a Global Problem, so Why Are We Solving It Piecemeal?

  1. I totally agree that vehicle standards need to take into account the “full-cost” of the environmental impact. Regardless of whether we all agree on what should be done about climate change, we can’t have an informed conversation about it unless we are all talking about the same reference frame and objectives. As you state, just looking at driving emissions leaves out the harmful effects of production and, in the case of EVs, charging. I also think miles-per-gallon is a flawed way to think about fuel economy because it obscures the real objective, which is reducing emissions of various compounds. The risk of doing that (even if it simplifies targets) is that it limits the scope of innovations we can use in our approach.

  2. This is a great re-framing of the problem. When Elon Musk inevitably visits HBS for a talk, I would love to hear a question from the audience on this!

    I’d add that there are even more hidden sources of environment damage in a car like a Tesla beyond the ones you mentioned (that’s the challenge of an 800 word limit). Wired ( does a great job of walking through the environmental effects of the mining required to produce the rare minerals that make a Tesla super-light and energy efficient, as well as the potential problems in battery disposal.

    Of course, the ultimate purpose of framing a problem across the entirety of the supply chain is to create a transportation solution that, end-to-end, produces the lowest environmental impact. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy for an average consumer to comprehend the entirety of a supply chain while making purchasing decisions and under the pressure of a Tesla salesman! Perhaps there will eventually be more regulation in how “environmentally friendly” products are marketed to consumers, much in the way that nutritional benefit terminology is starting to become more tightly controlled in order to help consumers make smart decisions.

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