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Posts from the Climate Change Category

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Obama’s Politically Impossible Transpo Plan Is Just What America Needs

Even with a tax on oil, the U.S.'s effective gas tax rate would be the lowest in the industrialized world. Graph: Tony Dutzik via FHWA

Even with a tax on oil, the U.S.’s effective gas tax rate would be the lowest in the industrialized world. Graph: Tony Dutzik via FHWA

It may be “seven years too late,” as tactical urbanist Mike Lydon put it, but President Obama has released a transportation proposal that calls for big shifts in the country’s spending priorities.

Obama’s proposal would generate $30 billion annually from a $10-per-barrel surcharge assessed on oil companies. More importantly, the revenue is linked to a substantial shift in what transportation projects get funded. It’s the kind of thorough proposal, on both the revenue and spending sides of the equation, that Obama shied away from for most of his presidency. (It would only have stood a chance during his first two years in office.) While this Congress would never pass it, the proposal does lay down a marker for what smart federal transportation policy could be.

In a rough sketch laid out by the White House yesterday of the upcoming proposal, Obama calls for major increases in transit funding and investing in a network of efficient high-speed rail. Perhaps even more innovative is a $10 billion program to reduce carbon emissions from the transportation sector. This program, among other things, would fund states to better coordinate housing and job development with transportation. Obama’s proposal also calls for $2 billion to support research and development and the implementation of autonomous vehicles.

Not surprisingly, what has gotten the most press is the oil tax, which even Obama admits would likely be passed on to consumers through higher gas prices. Already, Republican Congressional leaders have called the proposal “DOA.”

Obama’s people have acknowledged the bill faces long odds in Congress, describing it as a conversation starter. An unnamed administration official told Politico the plan would help shift the nation’s transportation policy out of the Eisenhower era.

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The New Climate Villain Is Cheap Oil

Long-term climate prospects brightened somewhat in 2015. Pope Francis put climate care on the moral and political agenda. President Obama rejected the Keystone XL dirty-oil pipeline. Denialist heads of state were routed in Canada and Australia, and their brethren in the U.S. faced growing ridicule. To cap it off, nearly 200 nations signed the UN Paris accord, committing to cutting emissions. Meanwhile, U.S. coal use took another double-digit plunge. And U.S. electricity generation from zero-carbon photovoltaic solar cells continued to soar and has now grown 20-fold in just five years.

Alas, there’s one bummer in this rosy picture, and it’s a big one: cheap gasoline.

After years of steady gains, average gas mileage of new vehicles purchased in the U.S. fell last year by nearly a mile per gallon, according to data from the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute.

Through September, total miles driven in the U.S. were up 3.5 percent — the biggest rise in decades.

Cheap gas is driving both trends. The average price of gas sold in the U.S. through October 2015 was 25 percent below the 2014 price — the steepest drop in at least 70 years. Americans responded precisely as predicted in Econ 101: by driving more and dumping sedans for SUV’s and pickups.

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Talking Headways Podcast: Uber and the Case of the Hidden Gas Tax

podcast icon logoUber is celebrating. DC passed an Uber-legalization law that Uber thinks cities the world over should follow. The problem is, most cities have much more tightly regulated taxi industries than DC, with a far higher cost of entry. In those cases, letting Uber get away with providing taxi services while complying with none of the rules is unfair. The taxi companies have been screaming about this for a while now. Uber’s response is something like, “Catch me if you can, old geezer.” DC’s contribution to that conversation strengthens Uber’s position.

In other news, a front group for the oil industry is trying to cause panic among California drivers about a “hidden gas tax” that’s going to hit come January. What they’re really talking about is California’s landmark cap-and-trade law to limit greenhouse gas emissions, which will start including transportation fuels at the beginning of the year. Jeff and I called up Melanie Curry of Streetsblog LA to explain to us a campaign that didn’t seem to really make any sense and she assured us that we’re not crazy; it really doesn’t make any sense.

Stay tuned; our election recap edition will be coming out shortly.

You can find this podcast on iTunesStitcher, and the RSS feed, or wherever cool kids gather.

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Sustainable Transportation Could Save the World (and Save $100 Trillion)

A protesters gathered in New York City to demand action on climate, a new report shows exactly what that action could offer us. Photo: South Bend Voice via Flickr

As protesters gathered in New York City to demand action on climate change, a new report shows how smart transportation policy can play a major role in reducing carbon emissions. Photo: South Bend Voice/Flickr

Dramatically expanding transit and active transportation over the next few decades could reduce carbon emissions from urban transport 40 percent more than following a car-centric trajectory. And it could also save the world economy $100 trillion.

That’s according to a new report presented recently to the United Nations by researchers at UC Davis and the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy [PDF]. The team modeled the cost and greenhouse gas impacts of two scenarios for the future of world transportation up to the year 2050.

The baseline scenario assumes a business-as-usual approach to transportation. Following this path, transit systems across the globe would grow modestly over the next few decades, while driving would grow considerably, especially in developing nations.

Urban transportation produced about 2.3 gigatons of carbon dioxide in 2010, or about a quarter of total transportation emissions. This is expected to double under a business-as-usual approach by 2050.

Following a different path — which the authors call the “high shift” scenario — by 2050, countries around the world develop high-quality transit systems and bikeable, walkable street networks on par with today’s leading cities.

In the “high shift” future of 2050, most countries will have doubled or tripled their total rapid transit capacity. The authors modeled a dramatic increase in urban rail systems and even bigger growth in bus rapid transit systems. In the model, most major cities in the world would have BRT systems as extensive as Bogota’s TransMilenio.

This scenario also assumes more compact walkable development and increases in cycling — particularly e-bikes in developing nations. “Most cities could achieve something approaching average European cycling levels,” according to the authors, but still below global leaders like the Netherlands. The “high-shift” scenario also projects the effect of widespread road pricing or other financial incentives that favor sustainable modes. As a result, urban vehicle traffic would only reach half the level projected in the business-as-usual scenario.

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Transit Union and Sierra Club Join Forces for Earth Day and Beyond

Earth Day is a week from tomorrow. How many people will drive to their local environmental festival without even a second thought to how they got there?

The ATU and the Sierra Club are teaming up to promote transit as a solution to fast-rising transportation emissions. Photo: ##http://www.carnewschina.com/page/701/##Car News China##

The ATU and the Sierra Club are teaming up to promote transit as a solution to fast-rising transportation emissions. Photo: Car News China

The Amalgamated Transit Union and the Sierra Club will announce tomorrow that they are joining forces to highlight the connection between transportation and climate change.

Transit is important, “not only to people who ride it but also to everybody who breathes oxygen in the world,” said ATU President Larry Hanley. That’s why the union is strengthening its coordination with the Sierra Club.

“They completely get the importance of mass transit,” he said. “It’s just that we haven’t found ways to formalize our public relationship in the past. That’s what we’re going to do now.”

Transit advocates, including the ATU, have been working to advance the full range of arguments for transit with the Transit Is Greater campaign. The ATU’s new “Transit > Pollution” leaflet [PDF] is all ready to be rolled out at bus stops and train stations around the U.S. and Canada, where the union will be encouraging riders to become more active in the push for better transit. They’ll also be doing climate-themed events with the Sierra Club in May, and beyond that with events they’re calling “Transit Tuesdays.

“We’re working with elected officials and candidates for public office to get out and ride transit with us, to organize riders to contact Congress for a better transit bill,” Hanley said, referring to the pending reauthorization of the MAP-21 transportation bill. They’re also planning a rally May 20 on Capitol Hill, after which members of the ATU and the Transport Workers Union will visit Congressional offices. Sierra Club locals and other community groups from around the country will support that event with phone calls to their representatives.

While initially timed around Earth Day, the partnership launch also coincides with a spike of interest in climate change following the release of a new report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that issued a dire warning about the consequences of inaction. “Climate change, to those of us who don’t believe in voodoo but believe in science, is a real serious concern,” Hanley said. “We’re watching polar ice caps melt at the same time that our Congress has turned its back on the things that could slow that down — like mass transit.”

Even many lawmakers concerned about environmental issues don’t pay enough attention to the power of transit to allay climate change, said Hanley. “That’s really the whole point of what we’re doing in May and throughout 2014,” he said. “We’re going to remind the ones who should know and alert the ones who don’t about the value of mass transit.”

According to the IPCC report, emissions from transportation could rise by 71 percent from 2010 levels by 2050, while the scientific consensus holds that the world needs to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by then. The transportation sector is projected to be the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in the world.

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DC Region’s New Long-Range Plan Fails to Meet Its Own Climate Goals

Image: ##https://www.mwcog.org/uploads/committee-documents/YV1aVlhZ20131218092900.pdf##MWCOG 2013 Constrained Long-Range Plan##

While the Washington, DC region has set of a goal of reducing carbon emissions to 10 million tons by 2040, current transportation plans show emissions increasing to 26.5 million tons by then. Image: MWCOG 2013 Constrained Long-Range Plan

If sea levels rise just one foot in the Washington, DC, area, nearly 1,700 homes could be lost. Is the region’s transportation planning agency doing enough to stop that from happening? Several environmental and smart-growth organizations in the region are saying no. Seventeen groups have signed on to a letter, being delivered today, urging the agency to take action. The comment period on the agency’s latest long-range transportation plan closes tomorrow.

The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments committed in 2008 to an 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions below a 2005 baseline by 2050. Two years later, the agency added a goal of 20 percent reductions by 2020. But according to its own analysis, the agency’s current transportation plan doesn’t get the job done.

The chart above is from last year’s long-range plan, but the picture hasn’t changed much with this year’s additions. While three of the 11 projects MWCOG has added for 2014 are streetcars and another two are commuter rail, the list also includes a new highway to Dulles airport, an interchange, two road widenings, and the removal of bus-only lanes.

The Coalition for Smarter Growth has asked MWCOG to reopen the plan and shift “significantly more funds to key transit projects,” said CSG Director Stewart Schwartz. He says MWCOG’s long range plans have an “artificial transit constraint,” since the plan can only include projects that have reasonably identified financial resources. However, existing funds could be shifted to transit projects. Schwartz would like to see more money go toward Metro’s Momentum 2025 plan to increase capacity.

MWCOG's ##http://www.mwcog.org/clrp/projects/highway.asp##2013 long-range plan## calls for spending significant resources on road expansions.

Major highway improvements in MWCOG’s 2013 long-range plan

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What Will Our Future Be Like If We Don’t Change How We Get Around?

What will transportation be like in 2030? It depends a lot on what policies we institute, a RAND report finds. Image: ##http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR246.html## RAND##

What will transportation be like in 2030? It depends a lot on what policies we institute, a RAND report finds. Image: RAND

How will Americans get around in the year 2030? A recent report from the RAND Corporation lays out two “plausible futures” developed though a “scenario analysis” and vetted by outside experts. While RAND takes a decidedly agnostic stance toward the implications of each scenario, the choice that emerges is still pretty stark.

In the first scenario, oil prices continue to climb until 2030 and greenhouse gas emissions are tightly regulated, as a result of the recognition of the harm caused by global warming. Zoning laws have been reformed to promote walkable urban and suburban communities. Transit use has increased substantially. Road pricing is widely used to limit congestion and generate revenue for transportation projects. Vehicle efficiency standards have been tightened, and most drivers use electric vehicles. This is the scenario researchers at RAND call, rather dourly, “No Free Lunch.”

In the second scenario, “Fueled and Freewheeling,” oil prices are relatively low in 2030 due to increasingly advanced extraction methods. Americans’ relationship to energy is much like it was in the 1980s and 1990s. We’ll own more vehicles overall and drive more miles. Suburbanization will continue. Roads are in bad shape because no revenues are raised to repair them. Congestion is worse. This scenario represents the future if little action is taken to counter the effects of global warming.

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“Bike-Washing” the Keystone Pipeline [Updated]

An architectural firm's rendering for a bike path along the Keystone Pipeline. With sunflowers! Image: SWA Group

Houston-based architecture firm SWA Group has heads spinning today: Is their proposal to build a bikeway next to the Keystone Pipeline pure satire or a serious attempt to “bike-wash” the most reviled fossil fuel distribution project of our day?

SWA developed this idyllic rendering and sent it to the State Department and TransCanada, calling for a bike path alongside the proposed 1,300-mile Keystone Pipeline. The firm acknowledged that the drawing was tongue-in-cheek but insisted to Bloomberg that the proposal was serious. Apparently, SWA thinks the bikeway would defuse opposition to the pipeline and attract tourists.

That’s too bad, because as satire, it’s pretty sharp. A version of this happens all the time in cities: Proponents of an expensive boondoggle road project that will do nothing but encourage long, life-sapping commutes slap a bicycle path on the plans and call it a “multi-modal” corridor to placate opposition.

Environmentalists still aren’t sure the Keystone bikeway isn’t a joke. “Seriously, this can’t be for real,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld of the League of Conservation Voters.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” said Jane Kleeb, of Bold Nebraska, a pipeline opposition group.

A spokesman for TransCanada rejected the proposal, saying the corporation doesn’t own the land where the pipeline is planned and that any structures would block access to the pipeline. Meanwhile, Salon reports the bike lane proposal would cost a cool $400 million.

Update: Looks like this proposal is more satirical than SWA has been letting on to the press, since they originally put it out on April Fool’s Day. Well played. (Hat tip: Richard Masoner.)

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Obama’s Climate Speech: Mostly Mum on Transportation

President Obama announced a sweeping package of measures to address climate change today. But with a couple of exceptions, he was largely silent on the 27 percent of carbon emissions that come from the transportation sector.

President Obama outlined his new Climate Action Plan in a speech today at Georgetown. But the president's actions to address climate change are hindered by Congressional resistance. Image: Whitehouse.gov

One of the most important reforms the president announced is presidential memorandum he plans to issue to the EPA to develop carbon standards for power plants. Carbon emissions from these sources, unlike other harmful chemicals, have until this point gone unregulated by the federal government.

“Today about 40 percent of America’s carbon pollution comes from our power plants,” said the president, speaking at Georgetown. “Right now there are no limits to the amount of carbon pollutions those plants can dump into the air. None.”

“We’ve got to fix that,” he said.

Obama’s Climate Action Plan establishes a goal of doubling the amount of energy derived from renewable sources by 2020. The plan would also establish efficiency standards for appliances and federal buildings.

The most substantive portion of the plan related to transportation was the announcement that the president wants to expand new fuel efficiency standards for trucks and heavy vehicles beyond 2018. Those standards, the White House says, are projected to save about 270 million metric tons of carbon and 530 million barrels of oil.

The plan also calls for the elimination of “fossil fuel subsidies” in 2014, which would require Congressional cooperation. Research by the International Energy Agency has shown that eliminating those subsidies alone would reduce carbon emissions 10 percent by 2050, according to the Climate Action Plan.

In his speech, President Obama also made reference to the Keystone Pipeline, saying the State Department has been instructed not to approve the project if government analyses determine it would increase carbon emissions.

Jesse Prentice-Dunn, a policy analyst with the Sierra Club, says the Climate Action Plan is mostly a collection of policy fixes the president can enact without Congressional support — such as new emissions standards — which might explain why transportation got short shrift.

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Will Big Highway Projects Have to Consider Climate Change?

Expanding NEPA to include climate impacts and adaptability won't necessarily mean a future free from this. Photo: Macomb Politics

Since 1970, the National Environmental Protection Act has required federal agencies to consider the impacts of their projects on air, water, and soil pollution — but not on climate change.

Until recently, carbon dioxide, which causes global warning, wasn’t classified as a pollutant and so couldn’t be regulated under environmental laws. The EPA in 2009 asserted its power to regulate carbon emissions but hasn’t applied it to NEPA analyses for infrastructure – until now.

President Obama hasn’t made the announcement yet, but Bloomberg reported Friday that he “is preparing to tell all federal agencies for the first time that they should consider the impact on global warming before approving major projects, from pipelines to highways.”

There’s more – projects could also be evaluated according to resiliency in the face of climate change. Would the new infrastructure be destroyed if faced with flooding, drought, or other severe weather? Bloomberg reports that the White House is also “looking at” requiring these climate adaptability and resiliency reports for projects “with 25,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions or more per year, the equivalent of burning about 100 rail cars of coal.”

Does this mean no more highways?

The conservative National Review’s headline about the changes was, “Did Obama Just Block Keystone?” Columnist Stanley Kurtz speculated that Obama could publicly approve the Keystone XL pipeline and then let the new environmental review process rule it out.

Could the same go for highway projects?

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