To address emissions, the electric grid would need to eliminate fossil fuels and the petrochemical industry would need to reverse its explosive growth.

Many of the headlines coming out of Detroit this week during the North American International Auto Show will be about electric vehicles — from new electric concept vehicles from Nissan and Infiniti to an emerging partnership between Ford and VW on electric and autonomous vehicles. By all means, environmentalists and others should celebrate progress in bringing more EVs to market. But they should not assume such progress absolves the world from working hard on other fronts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. When I speak about energy, I find too many people in my audiences putting far too much hope in the lone measure of phasing out petro-powered cars.

There’s a particular psychological phenomenon at work here: All humans tend to focus on one or two solutions to incredibly complex problems. Robert Jervis, a political science professor at Columbia University, writes about how the brain can account for only a limited number of factors in considering any particular phenomenon. As a result, each of us tends to fixate on a small number of facets, and to give priority to the ones we understand.

Oil refinery plant at night

So it makes sense that so many people have a tendency to focus intensely on electric cars as the antidote to climate change. Unlike many other technologies that could prove significant — such as cleaner energy production from fusion, or carbon capture and storage to reduce existing greenhouse gas — even the nonscientists among us instantly grasp the idea of driving a car powered without oil. Moreover, the intuition is correct in many ways: In the U.S., as in many other countries, the transportation sector generates more greenhouse gas emissions than any other sector. And over 90 percent of the fuel used in transportation is petroleum based. It therefore seems — and is — logical that if we can wean our own cars and trucks off of oil, our climate prospects will be dramatically improved.

There are, of course, some important details. The first is that much of the reduction in carbon emissions in an EV-friendly scenario comes about not just from the switch from running vehicles on oil to electricity. It also results from decarbonizing the electricity grid — moving away from coal and natural gas to alternative forms of energy such as nuclear, solar and wind to generate electricity. Right now, more than a quarter of U.S. emissions come from the electricity sector. The advent of EVs and grid decarbonization must come together for maximum impact on carbon emissions. EVs running on electricity produced from coal are hardly a step in the right direction.

Read more: Bloomberg