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Prince Charles, McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown, McLaren's lead engineer, Leena Gade, and McLaren's first woman driver, Emma Gilmour, inspect the hand-drawn car livery unveiled at Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow on Nov. 3, 2021. McLaren Racing was the first F1 team to be certified carbon neutral 10 years ago.CHRIS JACKSON/AFP/Getty Images

When the COP26 climate summit began last week, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had high hopes that countries would commit to ending the sale of gas-powered cars by 2030.

But a pledge announced at the summit Wednesday involving 24 countries, including Canada, falls well short of that goal and leaves much of the global market moving far slower toward zero-emission vehicles.

The Route Zero pledge commits signatories to ensuring that all new cars and vans sold in 2040 will be zero-emission vehicles – although “leading markets” such as Canada and the U.K. have vowed to reach that target by 2035.

In addition to the two-dozen countries, 11 manufacturers, including Ford, General Motors, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo, have signed on, as have 40 cities, states and provinces ranging from British Columbia and Quebec to New York City and Victoria.

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Several companies that control fleets of vehicles, such as Uber, have also agreed to move toward 100-per-cent zero-emission vehicles by 2030 – or earlier “where markets allow.”

However, countries with major car markets such as the United States, China, Germany, Japan and Brazil did not sign the pledge. Also missing are the world’s two largest car makers – Volkswagen and Toyota – as well as the Renault-Nissan alliance and Hyundai-Kia. The pledge also only commits the 11 auto companies involved to reaching the zero-emission target “in leading markets” by 2035, which leaves the timeline open to interpretation.

The Canadian government had already committed to total zero-emission new car sales by 2035. But Transportation Minister Omar Alghabra acknowledged that the pledge needed to go further.

“Of course it works better when more countries are joining,” he said in an interview at COP26 after the pledge was announced. “The magnitude of this transformation requires everybody to have all hands on deck.”

However, he said the U.S. government has pledged to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and that he has been working with U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on the issue. “I feel that the U.S. is on-side and is doing everything they can to get there.”

The car companies that did not sign up said they have committed to reducing emissions and transitioning to battery-powered vehicles. But they said the pledge wasn’t viable given the uneven rollout of electric cars and related infrastructure around the world.

“While the overall global goal of reaching zero emissions in line with the Paris Agreement is non-negotiable, regions developing at different speed combined with different local prerequisites need different pathways towards zero emissions,” Volkswagen said in a statement. “Therefore, the Volkswagen Group, representing business activities in all major markets worldwide, decided not to sign the declaration at this point in time.”

BMW raised similar concerns to explain why it did not sign. In a statement, the company said, “There remains considerable uncertainty about the development of global infrastructure to support a complete shift to zero emission vehicles, with major disparities across markets.”

Despite the no-shows, U.K. officials were keen to stress the benefits of the pledge Wednesday, arguing that it was an important step in moving the world closer to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. “There are clear signs that cars have turned a corner,” said Trudy Harrison, the parliamentary undersecretary of state at the Department for Transport.

Road transport accounts for 10 per cent of global carbon output, and its emissions are rising faster than those of any other sector, according to the United Nations.

However, consumers have been shifting to electric vehicles. Sales of battery-powered cars topped 2.6 million units in the first half of 2021, representing 26 per cent of all sales, according to figures from IDTechEx. The firm has forecast that sales are on track to top five million this year, a rise of more than 80 per cent in the past decade.

Several speakers at a COP26 session Wednesday said that in order for sales to grow further, governments and industry have to build more charging stations. “We need infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure,” said Cynthia Williams, a global director at Ford. She also said the industry requires support to lower the cost of batteries.

Hakan Samuelsson, the chief executive of Volvo, said he was confident that market forces would solve the charging station issue over time. As more consumers buy electric cars, he said, demand for stations will increase. However, he said auto companies must consider their supply chains in order to further reduce their carbon footprint. “Battery production must be fossil-fuel free,” he told delegates.

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