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Posts from the Climate Change Category

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Yes, Local Transportation Agencies Can Measure Their Climate Impacts

It’s going to be a tough sell for those who claim that greenhouse gas performance measures for transportation can’t possibly work, when plenty of transportation agencies say it would be no problem.

That’s according to transportation officials in several regions across America who responded to a survey commissioned by the Natural Resources Defense Council. The responses were shared with the Federal Highway Administration as it considers implementing a rule for transportation agencies to measure their climate impact.

Even in cities and regions where climate change is nowhere near the top of the policy agenda, planners and decision-makers still recognize greenhouse gas reductions as a desirable outcome of some of the things their constituents want most — like walkable, bikeable neighborhoods and a break from endless roadway congestion that takes time out of their day while triggering respiratory disease and contributing to hundreds of premature deaths per year.

Some legislators are still debating the urgency of reducing carbon emissions from transportation, and the powerful benefits of doing so. Recently, Senate Energy and Public Works Chair James Inhofe (R-OK) maintained FHWA has no mandate to measure greenhouse gases.

But the issue is already settled for many metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), for reasons that usually include but often go far beyond the need for local solutions to global climate change. The survey of 10 agencies in eight states found that most support greenhouse gas reductions as a legitimate policy priority that meshes well with their responsibilities.

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Stark Divisions Between Dems and GOP on Climate Impacts of Transportation

How polarized are the two political parties on key questions about transportation policy and climate change? As you can imagine, the answer is “very.”

Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer (CA), ranking member of the Committee on the Environment and Public Works. Photo: Wikipedia

California Senator Barbara Boxer. Photo: Wikipedia

The senior Democrat and Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee — California’s Barbara Boxer and Oklahoma’s Jim Inhofe, respectively — each wrote an opinion this week for the Eno Center for Transportation about a proposed federal rule to require state DOTs to measure their impact on greenhouse gas emissions.

Boxer is the ranking Democratic member of the committee. Her column applauds the move to measure the climate impacts of state and regional transportation policy:

Establishment of a performance measure for carbon pollution is critically needed now. Since 1970, carbon emissions produced by the transportation sector have more than doubled, increasing at a faster rate than any other end-use sector. By requiring transportation agencies to track carbon emissions, we can evaluate whether transportation investments are effective in meeting the goal of protecting the environment.

Senator Jim Inhofe (OK) is chair of the Committee on the Environment and Public Works. Photo: Gage Skidmore

Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe. Photo: Gage Skidmore

Meanwhile, Committee Chair Inhofe challenged the legitimacy of the rule:

The goal of the laws I co-authored is to improve the safety and advance the modernization of our roads and bridges. FHWA’s proposed GHG regulation would divert the limited time and resources of States and local governments away from this goal to pursue instead the administration’s unlawful and overzealous climate agenda.

Yes, the “overzealous agenda” of transparently documenting how much carbon pollution is caused by billions of dollars of spending on transportation.

FHWA regulators will be wading through these and many other comments in the coming months as they produce a rule that may or may not require states and regional planning agencies to finally measure their impact on the climate.

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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.

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Survey: Americans Want DOTs to Factor Climate Change in Their Decisions

Graph: NRDC

Graphic: NRDC

Should we continue to let state transportation departments spend tens of billions of dollars in federal funds each year without regard to how highway expansions contribute to climate change? Right now U.S. DOT is looking to inject some accountability into a process that has created a very carbon-intensive transportation system, and a new poll suggests most Americans would welcome that.

The telephone survey of 1,000 adults, commissioned by the Natural Resources Defense Council, found that most Americans think that emissions from cars and trucks should factor into the decisions of transportation agencies. NRDC writes: “78 percent of Americans agree that ‘state transportation agencies should take vehicle-related carbon pollution and climate change into account when developing transportation plans, and also seek ways to reduce that pollution.'”

Responses varied somewhat across political lines, but solid majorities agree with the statement regardless of party: 92 percent of Democrats, 79 percent of Independents, and 64 percent of Republicans.

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7 Steps to Phase Out Carbon Emissions From American Transportation

Eliminating carbon emissions from the American transportation system can be done, according to a new report from the Frontier Group [PDF]. The tools to reduce energy use from cars and light trucks at least 90 percent are at our disposal or in advanced stages of development. The remaining 10 percent could be supplied by renewables like wind power.

The U.S. transportation sector produces about 28 percent of domestic GHG emissions and 4 percent of total global emissions. Here's how we compare to other nations right now. Graph: Frontier Group

The U.S. transportation sector produces about 28 percent of domestic GHG emissions and 4 percent of total global emissions. No other nation produces more transportation emissions per capita. Chart: Frontier Group

“We have the technical capacity to do all of these things,” Frontier’s Tony Dutzik told Streetsblog. Here’s how it would work, if we can muster the will.

The first step is to reduce driving. Frontier Group estimates that the following four strategies could cut miles driven per capita by 28 to 42 percent, which amounts to a 10 percent total decline by 2050 when accounting for population growth.

1. Walkable Development: We have to build more walkable places where people don’t have to hop in a car for every trip. People living in compact neighborhoods drive 20 to 40 percent less than people living in spread out areas. If 60 to 90 percent of new construction between now and 2050 is walkable development with good transit connections, it could reduce total GHG emissions from transportation 9 to 15 percent.

To accomplish that, Frontier says big coastal cities like New York and San Francisco need to “build up” and make room for more people. Meanwhile, sprawling places like Atlanta and Houston need to seize opportunities to redevelop existing space — parking lots or closed malls, for example — in a compact form.

2. Pricing Roads: Pricing parking alone could reduce total vehicle miles traveled by up to 3 percent. A blanket vehicle miles traveled tax, meanwhile, could reduce mileage by 10 to 12 percent. Congestion pricing, which puts a higher price on road use where and when traffic is most intense, is another avenue to cut mileage. London’s congestion pricing system, which only covers the central city, has helped reduce driving 10 percent even as the population has grown, Frontier reports.

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Why Fixing the Rust Belt Could Help Save the Climate

Cross-posted from the Frontier Group

The form of the built environment – the shape of our cities and towns – is directly related to our consumption of energy and our impact on the climate (PDF). People who live in areas where walking, biking and transit are viable means of transportation – and where car trips, when they happen, are shorter – produce less carbon pollution in their daily lives than residents of more sprawling areas.

Over the last decade, America’s trajectory toward ever-greater suburban expansion has slowed. Cities such as New York, Boston, Denver and Seattle are experiencing an urban boom; in other places, suburban development has angled toward “live/work/play” arrangements in which a car may still be necessary, but is likely to be used a little less.

There is a problem, though. Demand for walkable living in a high-quality urban environment is outstripping supply in a growing number of places. Housing prices in the urban neighborhoods of “hot” cities are skyrocketing, leaving many who might otherwise prefer to live a lower-carbon lifestyle on the outside looking in.

The ongoing battle between housing NIMBYs (not in my backyard) and YIMBYs (yes in my backyard) in places like the San Francisco Bay Area can be relied upon to light up the interwebs on a daily basis. But the world is not the Bay Area. And all of us would do well not to lose sight of what’s happening in a different set of cities, cities where what we now call “walkable urbanism” once existed on a grand scale: the cities of the Rust Belt.

It is hard for those of us who grew up in recent decades to imagine it, but Rust Belt cities once loomed large in the nation’s urban life. In the 1950 Census, Detroit was the nation’s fifth-largest city, followed immediately by Baltimore, Cleveland and St. Louis. Pittsburgh was 12th, Milwaukee 13th, Buffalo 15th. Today, Detroit is still the most populous of those cities, but it is only the 18th largest in the country. Its population has dropped by more than 1 million.

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Toward Zero Carbon Transportation: Technology and Institutional Change

Cross-posted from the Frontier Group

As the parents of two teenage boys, my wife and I are required to bore them periodically with stories of how things were When We Were Your Age.

One of those stories relates to food. My wife has often told the kids that she did not know what a whole bulb of garlic looked like until she was in college. In our house, where we use a lot of garlic, that’s almost as unthinkable as growing up without the Internet.

But I can certainly relate. As a child of the ‘70s and ‘80s, “garlic” was a powder that came in a jar, beer was yellow, apples were Delicious, and an heirloom vegetable was a can of peas that had been sitting in the back of the pantry for too long.

Today, of course, the typical supermarket contains a wide array of foods that the average 1970s American did not even know existed. But can a person who grew up learning how to cook from, say, the 1965 edition of the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook be expected to make the most of all that bounty?

A similar question can be asked in transportation.  In our upcoming report, A New Way Forward, we review the explosion of new tools and strategies – many of them emerging in just the last decade – that are creating new opportunities to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from our transportation system.

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Rising to the Political Challenge of a Carbon-Free Transportation System

Cross-posted from the Frontier Group

If we are to eliminate transportation’s contribution to climate change by mid-century, we will likely need to do some things in the coming years that currently seem politically impossible.

Our upcoming report, A New Way Forward, lays out some of the options: cities might embrace a new vision for urban growth that enables millions more people of all income levels to live low-carbon lifestyles; regions might unite to ensure that an emerging system of shared, autonomous and connected cars is sustainable and beneficial for the public; the public and decision-makers might finally overcome the political dominance of the fossil fuel industry in order to transition all of our motorized vehicles to run on clean, renewable fuels.

All of these are tall orders. None of them are truly impossible.

Yet none of them can realistically be achieved through incremental public policy “fixes” of the type that tend to dominate our current public policy debates. All will require a more profound level of change – a reordering of long-standing political, economic and social relationships and attitudes. They will require transformation.

If we accept that transformation is necessary to decarbonize our transportation system in time to prevent the worst impacts of global warming (and for the sake of the rest of this blog post, at least, we will), then it becomes imperative for us to understand how transformation occurs and the role public policy can play in making it happen.

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We Can Do It: A Zero-Carbon Transportation System Is Possible

Cross-posted from the Frontier Group.

The Paris Climate Agreement, approved by world leaders last December, represented a bold commitment to prevent the worst impacts of global warming – a commitment that must now be followed by action.

Meeting the agreement’s target of limiting global warming to no more than 2° C (and ideally no more than 1.5° C) above pre-industrial levels will require the United States to reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases by more than 80 percent, and possibly as much as 100 percent, by 2050.

That is 34 years from now. And the clock is ticking.

Can it be done? In March, we joined with Environment America Research & Policy Center to produce We Have the Power, a report that argued that it is possible to repower America with 100 percent renewable energy. And in two weeks, we will release A New Way Forward: Envisioning a Transportation System without Carbon Pollution, which makes the case that America has the tools and strategies it needs to eliminate carbon pollution from urban, light-duty transportation by 2050.

The report explores scenarios by which U.S. metropolitan areas might reduce energy demand for light-duty travel by as much as 90 percent – making it possible to repower our transportation system with clean renewable energy at the same time we eliminate carbon pollution from other areas of the economy.

Ours will not be the first analysis to suggest that decarbonizing transportation is possible. Over the last several years, government agencies, academics, environmental advocates and others have explored a variety of pathways (warning: PDFs) by which we can move toward a zero-carbon transportation system.

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Why Federal Efforts to Link Transportation to Climate Change Matter

Cross posted from the Frontier Group

Photo: Wikipedia

Photo: Wikipedia

Twenty-five years ago this spring, I was a fresh-faced undergrad at Penn State enrolled in a course on existential threats to civilization, including climate change. We knew then (and yes, with a reasonable degree of certainty we did know) that emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases were causing the earth to warm in ways that could prove catastrophic.

We also knew that travel on America’s roads was a leading source of greenhouse gases on a global scale, and that transportation infrastructure decisions were capable of encouraging the use of high-carbon modes of travel that contribute to the warming of the planet.

Since then, an entire generation of Americans has been born, grown up, and sat through unnerving college lectures. America has added more than 715,000 new lane-miles of public roads (the rough equivalent of building a 255-lane wide road from New York to Los Angeles), and we have spent an additional $2.6 trillion (2014$) in capital expenditures on our highway system. Since those sunny spring afternoons in 1991, America’s transportation system has spewed more than 43 billion metric tons (carbon dioxide equivalent) of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, contributing to the mounting damage from climate change that is now being experienced around the world.

So, how then to take the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (U.S. DOT) move last week to begin consideration of rules that would set non-binding performance measures for greenhouse gas emissions from transportation? Does it represent an important policy opening or a huge disappointment, given the scale and speed of climate change?

Time will tell and, as NRDC’s Deron Lovaas suggests in the comments to this Streetsblog post, the Obama administration’s announcement last week is merely the opening bell in what is sure to be an intense fight over how strong the new greenhouse gas performance measures will be and what format they will take.

Regardless of the ultimate form of the rules, however, the Obama administration’s action is significant, if only because it signals the renewal of public debate around the connection between transportation infrastructure decisions and global warming.

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