The United States needs to ratchet down climate pollution. This is a moral obligation and a practical matter that requires dissolving both ongoing and impending emissions, while treating every fraction of a degree of preventable warming as precious.
Fundamental to decarbonization is transportation. Transportation is one of the top sources of climate pollution and there is no credible path to sufficient decarbonization without transportation. Scientific modeling makes this clear.
Additionally, we know that business-as-usual in transportation combined with the possibility of new technology around transportation could create a climate bomb–something that is relatively unique to transportation.
Further, there is huge upside potential reason to reduce transportation climate pollution through demand-side measures in transportation not easily accounted for in models.
Further still, transportation is a treasure trove of low/negative-cost measures for decarbonization–even before counting the extraordinary co-benefits to our well-being and synergies with climate resilience.
This is according to the most exhaustive review of climate science done to date (IPCC, April 2022), which shows over ten disciplines converging on these results and their implications. Serious national, state, and local climate assessments tend to repeat the same conclusions. Science is very clear that decarbonizing our economy requires transportation to decarbonize.
CONSIDERATIONS FOR CHANGE-MAKERS
What it looks like for transportation to decarbonize, is in brief, policy-focused action to remake how existing transportation normally works in three ways.
First, to enable people to avoid the need for travel where possible by making improvements to space efficiency while re-orientating to the needs of people and their accessibility to things over motor vehicle throughput.
Second, to build out and make the economics and experience of transit, active transportation, and other high-occupancy travel attractive so that people and goods can shift travel to more efficient modes.
Third, to improve on the motive technology of vehicles in use, principally by electrifying just about everything on wheels with a motor. These strategies are in order of their decarbonization power, and all are needed.
In plainer terms, one way to think about what needs to happen is to stop accepting car dependence and sprawl and start building out systems of people-first, diverse mobility options that are efficient at the system level and largely electrified–with electrification focused on a newly right-sized, multi-modal fleet.
The need for transportation climate action is an emergency. Pretty much everybody has a role to play in decarbonizing transportation. Indeed, people wearing many different “hats”–as engaged citizens, as career professionals, as influencers of culture around them, and as residents making day-to-day user and and consumer choices, and as tinkerers–will be the defining feature of what we accomplish in a sector that is so diffuse in all of our lives.
Some actions that could be especially powerful:
- Local and state government leaders: Treating climate action like the emergency that it is by pursuing a science-based transportation decarbonization agenda and committing to a 5-Point Emergency Climate Action Plan for Transportation. Such efforts should unify all transportation-related activity centers including planning, land use, resource allocation, subsidies, and intergovernmental efforts.
- Existing advocates for climate action and transportation: Encourage policy and investment commitments that work towards an integrated vision of transportation decarbonization as the North Star.
- Advocates for social justice: Investigate the agenda for decarbonizing transportation–which includes a focus on people-first, more inclusive transportation systems that can save people time and money while making communities safer, healthier, and more resilient–and consider whether and how elected officials who say they care about climate might have an impetus to do more.
- Investors and solutions providers: Position the business to be an enabler of science-based decarbonization pathways in a way that stand up to rigorous scrutiny.
Briefing | People-First, Efficient and Electrified Multimodal Systems: A Framework for Equable, Resilient Climate Action. Under development.
Blog | Five Climate Emergencies in Transportation. Under development.
Briefing | Overcoming Transportation Carbon Lock-in. Under development.
Data Analysis | Carbon Efficiency of Transportation By Mode. Under development.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (April 2022). Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2022). Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2020.
U.S. Global Change Research Program (2018). Fourth National Climate Assessment. Note: The Fifth Edition is under development.
Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH (2019). Sustainable Urban Transport: Avoid-Shift-Improve.
Institute for Transportation and Development Policy and UC Davis (December 2021). The Compact City — Electrified: The Only Way to 1.5°C.
climate action through transportation abundance