U.S. Transportation Now Belches Out More Carbon Than U.S. Electricity

Photo: Wikipedia
Photo: Wikipedia

For the first time in almost four decades, the nation’s tailpipes now spew out more carbon emissions than the nation’s smokestacks. It’s an indication of how slowly the American transportation sector is rising to the challenge of preventing catastrophic climate change.

Over the past 12 months, carbon emissions from cars and trucks have exceeded carbon emissions from electric power — the first time that’s happened since 1979, according to the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

Emissions from the electric power sector, where coal is on the decline, are trending downward, while transportation emissions have actually been increasing in recent years, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Compared to 2014, emissions from the transportation sector are up 6 percent this year. By contrast, carbon emissions from electric power declined 23 percent.

Federal transportation policy has tended to deal with air pollution largely by focusing on better fuel economy standards. But more must be done.

“It is increasingly clear that there is no path to combating climate change that doesn’t adequately address carbon pollution and other greenhouse gas emissions from transportation,” said John Olivieri of U.S. PIRG in a statement. “Over reliance on single-occupant vehicle travel and a failure to prioritize non-driving modes of transportation like transit, biking, and pedestrian alternatives is having a profound impact on the health of our planet and the health of our citizens.”

U.S. DOT is only just now weighing whether to require transportation agencies to measure their impact on carbon emissions. That would be a small but welcome step toward achieving the low-carbon transportation system we need.

  • Hilda

    This optimistically implies that we are producing more energy from wind and solar, rather than the resigned understanding that we are producing more SUV’s?

  • Alicia

    It’s probably a mix of both factors, but the mostly the former: the energy sector is changing faster than automobiles.

    However, electric cars are available and are making inroads on the market. Hopefully gains we’ve seen in the energy sector will soon be matched with gains in transportation.

  • Flakker

    I’m looking here http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/monthly/pdf/sec12.pdf , pages 8 and 9. It’s hard to understand because transportation’s share of electricity-caused carbon dioxide emissions is bigger than all liquid fuels’ CO2 emissions combined, and both of these are larger than the “electric power” sector so far this year.

  • Laurence Aurbach

    Electricity is one energy-consumption CO2 emissions source. Transportation is another. The remainder of US energy-consumption CO2 emissions is composed of fossil fuel emissions from the residential, commercial, and industrial sectors. In 2015 the percentages of energy-consumption emissions broke down like this: electricity 36%, transportation 35%, the remainder 28%.

    Even if we make our electricity system completely carbon free, that would leave 63% of our energy-consumption CO2 emissions unchanged. Cleaning up the electricity system is great but we need to clean up the other sectors too.

    Efficiency is one of the best solutions and the US transportation system is one of the least efficient in the world. But efficiency and electrification can only take us so far, and I believe we’re also going to need non-fossil liquid and gaseous fuels.

  • Joe R.

    It’s probably only a matter of time before mass market electric cars from China make it to our shores. If these sell for the same or less than ICE cars, which is highly likely, people will buy them in huge numbers. That will spur things like installing more charging stations, and even having on the fly charging: http://www.caranddriver.com/features/going-wireless-how-induction-will-recharge-evs-on-the-fly-tech-dept

  • neroden

    Transportation can be converted to electricity (and it will be). Does the subway burn oil? No!

    The residential and commercial sectors are mostly using fossil fuels for heating, which can also be converted to electricity. (Cooking is miniscule by comparison and can be ignored.)

    The industrial sector is more difficult, but again a lot of the usage is heating, which can be converted to electricity. Some is oil refining, which can be largely eliminated when we stop using fossil fuels.

    So really, 100% clean electricity is key.

  • Laurence Aurbach

    Clean electricity is essential, but many applications have not been electrified because doing so is too expensive or the infrastructure is difficult to build. Other applications have not been electrified because the technology is unsuitable. For example, heavy trucks, ships, and aircraft can’t operate on batteries with present-day technology. Furthermore, the challenges presented by technology may be outmatched by political, administrative, and economic barriers.

  • DRSte

    If you believe that, I would ask, why don’t we have lots of Chinese cars on the streets now?
    I think electric cars are on their way, but I see no reason to think that China is going to master the economies of scale of a incredibly complex machine and supply chain before US and European companies do.
    Maybe they will be partly manufactured in China, as are lots of cars now, if that is what you meant?

  • Alon Levy

    In Germany and Scandinavia, where winter temperatures are about the same as in the Northeastern US, there’s a growing trend of passive houses, which reduce heating requirements by about an order of magnitude over the latest US energy efficiency standards.

  • Jason

    By passive, do you mean the heating/cooling is geothermal? I went to college in the Hudson Valley and maybe my college just had a poor implementation but they had some dorms with geothermal climate control and there was a dead zone around 65°F where it didn’t really do anything because the air temperature was near equilibrium with the geothermal heatsink.

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