Updated September 10, 2022
In April 2022, the world’s authoritative scientific body on climate change, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), gave a major update on the state of climate science.1 Here are the big ideas about transportation:2
TREAT TRANSPORTATION LIKE THE SAFETY OF OUR CLIMATE DEPENDS ON IT. Transportation is one of the top sources of climate pollution. To maintain a safe climate, we have to make transportation a top priority. And with that commitment, we need to promptly flatten and bend the emissions of transportation–most importantly, on-road transportation–steeply down and on track for nearly zero by the 2050s.
STRUCTURALLY STEP DOWN SYSTEM DEMAND. One of two main required outcomes is to structurally reduce energy demand by transforming pervasive car dependence and sprawl into a fabric of space-efficient, multimodal systems. This is a higher state in which we have plush transit, bicycle, and pedestrian facilities and people have widespread opportunities to choose options that have the lowest energy cost for the trip—which in many cases is multiple orders lower and in others eliminates underlying distance altogether. The core technologies needed to make this a reality already exist—and new technologies can be targeted to accelerate progress.
ELECTRIFY EVERYTHING WITH WHEELS AND A MOTOR. The second of two key outcomes is to electrify essentially every on-road mode possible, including cars, buses, most trucks, and trains, while building out new kids of ultralight modes such as e-bikes. The drive for electrification must be done consistent with that to reduce energy demand and needs to be in addition to—and complementary with—the buildout of space-efficient multimodal systems.
STOP STRANDING ASSETS. Stop stranded assets from doomed high-carbon investments. Which means reducing, not adding, long-lived infrastructure that will increase car capacity, especially in places exposed to high weather risks that are getting worse with a hotter temperatures. More generally, stop subsidies of high carbon activities.
PURSUE SYSTEM CHANGE WITH SYSTEMS OF INTERVENTIONS. Making the changes needed will require packages of policies and significant new commitments, including eliminating subsidies that propagate the status quo, investing in making public transportation effective, widely expanding demand management, and making transportation and land use decisions together. It also requires updating the “operating system” of transportation to move beyond continued subsidization of personal passenger cars as the single mode for all occasions, and towards a more configurable system of mobility options in which users can rightsize their vehicle as needed for the trip and in turn reduce significant levels of energy use–and correspondingly, financial expense.
TAKE ON CARBON LOCK-IN. A big reason the transportation climate problem is vexing is “lock in:” Decades of subsidies have created inertia that make it difficult for leaders to choose alternatives to the “dominant design technology” of car dependence and sprawl, and so decisions tend to affirm the status quo and reinforces the path. We have to overcome lock-in, both to avoid committing massive future new emissions, to change the trend of emissions from existing activities, and manage long-term processes of diffusion of climate-compatible transportation technologies and methods. Tools have emerged to do so, and leaders are starting to step up.
USE MOBILITY TECHNOLOGY WISELY. Technology is an enabler for transportation climate action, but applying new mobility tech to transportation does not guarantee less climate pollution–and in some cases it is increasing impacts. In order to evaluate a particular technology, measure the evidence against the “Avoid-Shift-Improve” framework. If it causes more driving (even if electric), increases per-passenger energy use, or has the effect of suppressing transit or active transportation, it is generally not supporting the transformation towards deep decarbonization needed. Conversely, technology that increases the utilization of vehicles through public transit, that eliminates vehicle mass, and that helps to avoid (or reduce) the need for miles in the first place is associated with meaningful decarbonization.
TURN ON THE MOTOR OF LOCAL POWER. Most people live in urban areas, and almost everyone connects to urban areas as transportation hubs. Urban areas are associated with relatively more carbon-efficient travel per capita, as well as the potential to do much more. Therefore, the entities closest to trips on the ground have the greatest ability to open and close valves of traffic through the specification of infrastructure and demand management. The collective “urban form” is a trove of possibilities, and local and regional governments are in the driver’s seat to make things happen.
EXPECT MORE FROM TRANSPORTATION DESPITE THE CLIMATE CRISIS. Investments in transportation climate action are some of the highest-return climate investments out there. Further, if we are successful, we will create abundance that is hugely important in its own right and also can help to stimulate, accelerate, and sustain equitable progress and a just transition by giving people transportation that can return time, money, health, and economic opportunity.
INVEST IN THE POSSIBILITY OF WARP SPEED. Change can happen fast and it has done so in transportation–see, for example, the rise of micromobility. The possibility of rapid, nonlinear change is not straightforward to model out, but it is nevertheless something we can and need to cultivate. Culture is a powerful force towards this and can happen at multiple scales.
THIS IS AN EMERGENCY. Despite the clarity of the opportunity for transportation climate action, emissions from this sector have gotten away from us, even more so than other sectors. Worse, new storm clouds are forming.
Feedback is welcome in the comments below or at the contact page. Updates will made as needed and documented.
1 IPCC (April 2022). Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel. Also, watch for original briefings and analysis on IPCC 2022 to come.
2. This is an abbreviated take for the non-specialist.
unlock transportation climate action