Webinar Recap: Decarbonizing the Transportation Sector

See the slides from the webinar here 

The COVID-19 pandemic is proving how essential transportation is to the function of U.S. society — despite shutdowns and lockdowns across the country, public transportation has remained open throughout, because without it, many essential workers are not able to do their jobs. However, there are a lot of issues with U.S. transportation systems, and our country is known globally to have some of the worst transportation infrastructure for a developed state. 

Transportation is also the largest contributor to U.S. heat-trapping gas emissions, accounting for 29% of our country’s carbon pollution. If climate advocates and environmentalists hope to make any impact in reducing emissions, addressing transportation and finding ways to reduce emissions in this sector is essential. 

This month, we spoke with Daniel Gatti, the Director of Clean Transportation Policy at Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, Colin Murphy, the Deputy Director, UC Davis Policy Institute for Energy, Environment and the Economy, and Beth Osborne, Executive Director of Transportation for America, to learn more about efforts happening across the country to reduce transportation emissions. 

Building a clean transportation system for Massachusetts

Massachusetts transportation is known to be especially terrible — for the second year in a row, Boston was found to have the worst congestion in the entire country. 

This is not only an issue of convenience, but is also an issue of equity. As a part of a study for the Union of Concerned Scientists, Daniel Gatti found that communities of color in Massachusetts, as well as other states in the Northeast, face significantly higher exposure to transportation-based pollution. 

“Overall, non-white residents from Massachusetts are exposed to about ⅓ more pollution from cars and trucks than white residents,” Gatti told us. 

Now, Gatti is working with the Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs to find different policy options to reduce transportation-derived emissions, which will not only benefit the environment and public health measures, but will also focus on assisting environmental justice communities. 

This process began last year, when Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker convened the Commission on the Future of Transportation. This task force took a look at many of the factors that influence transportation in the Commonwealth, and released a report with widespread policy recommendations for the state to consider. Based on these recommendations, as well as the Governor’s goal to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, Gatti is modeling ways to actually implement these procedures. 

“Our modeling thus far shows that the majority of global warming reductions in transportation comes from electric vehicles. This is consistent with other studies in other jurisdictions,” Gatti said. 

Electric vehicle technology has been around since the 1940’s, when Nikola Tesla created a battery-based motor, but at the time, we did not have the battery storage technology to make these vehicles viable. Today, we have that technology. 

“If we were designing our transportation system from scratch today, there’s no question that we would choose vehicles powered by electric power motors over vehicles powered by the internal combustion engine,” Gatti said. “But, the better mousetrap doesn’t always win in a market that has been dominated by a single fuel source for generations.”

The problem is that gas powered, internal combustion engines have serious advantages in today’s economy. Infrastructure has been created with the assumption that the internal combustion engine will always be dominant. Garages are not set up for charging infrastructure, and gas stations dominate our highways. There is also the issue of cost. Because electric vehicles are not in as high demand as gas-powered cars at the moment, they cost more to make as they are not made at the same scale. If there was a higher demand for these cars, that cost would decrease significantly. 

Making the transition to electric vehicle infrastructure will not be easy, and will necessitate large-scale state investment. Massachusetts is already working on these types of investments, and is planning to push and expand investments in electric vehicles in the future. 

This has led Massachusetts to help spearhead the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI), a cap-and-invest program in the Northeast that would place a limit on carbon pollution in the transportation sector. 

“To give you an idea of the scale of this opportunity, TCI states cover 72 million people, 52 million registered vehicles, and $5.3 trillion in GDP. If the region was its own country, it would be the third largest economy in the world besides the United States and China,” Gatti said. 

This would improve Massachusetts’s ability to reduce emissions, by not only creating a limit on transportation emissions, but also by generating funding for states to put back into their economies to support better community-based environmental programs. It will also help fix some of the state’s broken transportation infrastructure, and ensure the public transit system is more equitable and safe to use. 

California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard serves as an example for states 

In California, state policymakers understand that reducing transportation emissions is a necessary feat if the U.S. is to reach the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s target to keep global temperatures from exceeding an increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius. A key component to achieving this target is hitting net-zero emissions by 2050, and then continuing to reduce emissions to become net-negative. 

California also has its own short-term emissions reduction target: to reduce emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. But, even if all major non-fuel greenhouse gas reductions policies yield results at the higher end of modeling expectations, California will not be able to meet their target without including transportation emissions reductions. 

“You have to have fuels that can reduce emissions from the existing fleet of vehicles, while you’re also working on the transition to an electric future over the long term,” said Murphy. “There needs to be something to reduce emissions out of existing vehicles in the meantime.” Individuals often own cars for many years, so to hit emissions reduction targets in the next decade will mean reducing the emissions that these vehicles already have, before we can think about moving to electric cars. 

“The slow rate of turnover of the vehicle fleet means that even if you get to a very high rate of sales of electric vehicles, it’s going to be 10 to 20 years before the fleet actually turns over and you get enough sales to reduce emissions,” described Murphy.

This has led California to adopt what they call the Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS), designed to decrease the emissions intensity of California’s fuel, while simultaneously supporting renewable possibilities. It includes policies that will quickly reduce emissions, such as electric vehicles, high-efficiency fuels and non-liquid fuels, as well as the inclusion of (some) biofuels. 

LCFS sets a carbon intensity target, and measures each fuel against it to determine viability. If fuels produce more emissions than the target, they create a deficit, but if they produce less, they generate credit. At the end of the year, these deficits and credits have to match up to ensure that the target is met. 

A lot of these fuels are not meant to be used in the long-term, because they are still somewhat emissions intensive, but are important in the moment to meet targets, and to be used as transition fuels, according to Murphy.

“You need to make sure that while you’re taking the incremental change value, you are not killing the incentive to bring in the advanced technology that can get you to the long-term future. So you need to have a policy that makes that distinction,” Murphy told us. 

California’s policy has already been adopted by a lot of other places, including Oregon, British Columbia, and Brazil. Many other states across the U.S. are also considering an LCFS policy, including Washington State, New York, Colorado, and many Midwestern States. In the future, it is likely that many states will follow in California’s footsteps and implement this policy to reduce transportation emissions. 

Can we use policy tools to reduce travel demand in the first place? 

As the Massachusetts and California policies revealed, transportation policy can be really tricky and complicated to unravel and understand. Beth Osbourne is working to tackle some of these intricate problems through her organization Transportation for America, a group that advocates across the country for a safe, affordable and convenient transportation system. 

Osbourne views options to reduce transportation within five categories: fuel switching, improving fuel efficiency, improving operating practices, reducing travel demand, and reducing building on the fringe. Her work focuses on the latter two. 

“These are the two areas where the government has the biggest role to play. It is also the place where it likes to avoid talking about this at all. Government loves to talk about regulating behavior, but really resists getting into the conversation about where their programs create big problems,” Osbourne told us.

There are lots of ways to both reduce travel demand and fringe building, and many different ways this can look. It can look like frequent, connected, and safe transit that goes where people need to go, new roadway design standards that support safety over speed, or jobs and services placed close to homes. 

Compared to the utility sector, which is fairly easy to regulate because there are only a few, large companies dominating the industry, the transportation sector has so many actors and stakeholders, making it extremely complicated to change. “It’s not enough to provide safe, frequent, connected transit,” Osbourne told us. “If the roadway is designed for fast moving vehicles and no one can get to the bus-stop, then you are providing a service that no one can use.”

In most areas of the country, roads are extremely dangerous to cross, which encourages people to drive instead of walk to close locations. But policymakers often fail to take this into account. 

“My brother lives in the Baton-Rouge area, and there’s a grocery store 3 blocks from his house. But to get there, you have to walk on a 2-lane, 45 miles-per-hour road lane through traffic. And I’ve spoken to policymakers who say they don’t know why people just don’t want to walk,” Osbourne said. 

COVID-19 bringing to light transportation problems & possibilities 

Today, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a lot of the problems our transportation systems have always had, giving us a massive opportunity for improvement. We’ve already seen communities living near highways and with increased exposure to air pollution, largely black and communities of color get hit the hardest by the pandemic. Living near highly polluted areas with heavy transportation emissions can result in terrible public health issues, even without the existence of a deadly, global virus, giving us even greater incentive to reduce these emissions. 

“The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has placed an importance on addressing pollution, particularly in environmental justice communities. Pollution from our cars and trucks are the largest source of pollutants impacting our respiratory health, particularly of PM2.5 and ultrafine particulates. These emissions are concentrated in urban areas, near highways and ports, and they disproportionately impact communities of color,” Gatti said.

The pandemic has also resulted in increased speeding, despite decreases in traffic. This is because roads are intended to maximize speed, not safety. “Our roadways are designed to move vehicles quickly,” Osbourne said. “When you design a road for that purpose, it is at cross-purposes with moving people. People who are trying to travel on foot tend to lose the battle with a car traveling at a high speed.” 

The decreased traffic due to COVID-19 has actually accelerated speeding, because without traffic, it is easier for cars to move very quickly down roads that are designed for exactly that purpose. This is because our country uses traffic as a safety intervention, even though it is not guaranteed. 

Despite these issues, the pandemic has also brought to light many opportunities for positive change. The shutdowns that have come with coronavirus have allowed many areas to reprioritize streets, which has seen great benefits for pedestrians and residents. 

“We have seen many cities across the country very quickly, I mean within days, redesign roadways to make space for people to be out of doors, socially distanced, but staying active and healthy,” said Osbourne. This pandemic is proving that it is possible to make these positive changes quickly, and improve transportation infrastructure for all people. 

This very moment is the perfect time to push for these types of measures, as local governments across the country begin to consider economic recovery policies. We need to insist that recovery packages include the priorities of job creation, equity, and climate resiliency, supporting transit systems that are better for people. Now is the time to fix America’s broken infrastructure and ensure transportation systems are focused on benefiting people, while simultaneously stimulating our economy.