3 Policy Fixes That Could Dramatically Reduce Transportation Emissions

Transportation now surpasses electric power as the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Graph:  Bloomberg
Transportation now surpasses electric power as the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Graph: Bloomberg

Toward the end of last year, the U.S. transportation sector surpassed electric power as the nation’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. At Bloomberg, Tom Randall writes that the Trump administration’s attack on fuel efficiency standards could slow down attempts to clean up transportation — or progress could accelerate if the market for electric vehicles takes off.

But changing tailpipe emissions is just one avenue to reduce carbon from transportation. Changing the amount people drive is another, and it can have a powerful effect.

A new paper from Allen Greenberg of the Federal Highway Administration and John Evans from Cambridge Systematics makes a compelling case for reducing transportation emissions with three simple changes to driving incentives [PDF].

Cleveland-based air quality researcher Tim Kovach summarizes these recommendations on his blog:

  1. Converting fixed pricing mechanisms for car insurance to pay-as-drive-and-you-save (PAYDAYS), which charge people a variable rate, based upon how many miles they drive;
  2. Requiring employers who provide free parking for their employees to implement parking cash-out programs, which provides an equivalent cash incentive to employees who do not drive alone to work; and
  3. Converting fixed-percentage sales taxes on new vehicle purchases to mileage-based taxes spread over a three-year period.

The impact of changing these price signals could be substantial, achieving between 37 percent and 95 percent of the emissions reductions projected from the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, the authors estimate.

We know the Trump administration doesn’t care about global warming and is outright hostile to any attempts to address it. So Greenberg and Evans say states should pick up the slack.

Kovach explains:

They found that if each of the 19 states (plus the District of Columbia) that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 signed up for these three ideas, it would cut GHG emissions by 103 MMTCO2e (40% of total potential savings).

Next, they estimated that if California, the nine East Coast states in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), and the eight other states that signed up to defend the CPP in federal court all took action, they could achieve 35% of the emissions savings from the CPP.

More recommended reading today: Green Caltrain reports on an analysis that reveals an equity problem with the way transit fares are structured. Greater Greater Washington takes a look at nine transit smart cards from around the U.S.

  • TakeFive

    Look at that graph!!! It tells an Amazing Story.

    Thank you Pres Obama. His top accomplishment which came out of the ARRA was his yuge support of renewable energy. While conservatives will happily point to Solyndra, it’s all apart of the R&D process. For those innovators that survived and thrived, they went onto cut the costs of wind and solar energy in half over the succeeding years.

    Who wouldathunk that Red States Kansas and Oklahoma would add state incentives on top of Federal in competing with each other for wind energy? Xcel Energy now indicates that over half of Colorado’s electricity generation will come from Clean Green sources within Ten Years. What a turnaround from Wyoming and Colorado coal being the source of two-thirds of Colorado electricity generation when Obama took office.

    Bring on the Electric and hybrid vehicles.

  • Bring on the EVs and PHEVs so that electricity emissions can regain their rightful majority? Suuure.

    We’ve had these for decades, and they aren’t helping. Note the steady climb in the 1990s and 2000s, while EVs and PHEVs were supposedly saving the planet, but were instead exhibiting the entirely-predicted Jevons Paradox.

  • TakeFive

    Well there’s no easy explanation for why people choose to dump the bus for their own carriage but there is an answer coming. And even if you don’t hang in the desert the NYT has the story for ya. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/11/technology/arizona-tech-industry-favorite-self-driving-hub.html

  • Flakker

    The low-hanging fruit has been the elimination of coal plants and that will continue no matter what. Not to say that everything’s fine but apparently for example the Proterra electric bus would produce lower CO2 emissions than a diesel bus even if 100% of its electricity came from coal. https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2017/10/24/16519364/electric-buses

  • Joe R.

    The low-hanging fruit for reducing VMT is eliminating pointless daily commutes to jobs where the person is sitting at a computer terminal all day. Up to 2/3rds of jobs can be done partially or fully from home. We should give employers major incentives to overcome their institutional resistance to having their employees work off-site.

  • Joe R.

    I’ve never understood the complaints about Solyndra and other failed renewable energy ventures. You don’t go from zero to commercialization instantly. There’s bound to be a few kinks in the road. Unfortunately, we’re reluctant in this country to pay for R&D, even if in the long term the total cost is less than just continuing the status quo.

    Once we reduce the costs of energy storage the combination of solar/battery should enable quite a few residences to go off-grid.This is good considering the grid is both capacity-limited and in dire need of repair.

  • AMH

    Agree that more people should be able to work from home if they choose, but not everyone wants it. Likewise, a 13-hour workday should be a choice, but definitely not a standard.

  • Joe R.

    That’s fine if employees who can work at home but don’t want to are willing to pay for any extra office space a company needs to accommodate their desire. Obviously that cost might be zero in some cases but might not be if companies can downsize their office space by letting people work at home.

    I’m fine with making a 12 or 13 hour day a choice so long as someone who would rather work three longer days isn’t forced to work five 8-hour days if only a tiny minority want longer days. That said, I can’t imagine why anyone would rather work 5 days instead of three. When you count work time, lunch, travel, sleep, and personal needs (showering, cooking/eating) maybe you have a lousy 4 hours a day left when you work a standard 8-hour day. I’d rather consolidate that time into extra days off instead of having it spread out in relatively useless 4-hour blocks. Sure, it’s true on the days you’re working you’re doing nothing but working, traveling, and sleeping, but who cares if it means two more days off each week (and saving 40% on commuting expenses/time)?

  • Stephen Simac

    Vehicle emissions decreased after air pollution and gas mileage standards for cars were implemented in the mid 70’s, and newer cars began to replace old gas guzzlers, but the dips correspond with economic recessions. SUV sales which are regulated like trucks, (big loophole for car manufacturers on mileage and emissions) begin climbing in the mid 80’s, when emissions increase until the 2007 recession. Now they’re creeping up to old levels with full employment.
    Electricity has been switching to natural gas from coal and that’s a big difference in CO2. Although solar and wind power have been increasing geometrically, they’re still a small percentage of total generation.

  • Sluggo67

    “I find it hard to believe anyone would prefer not to work out home given a choice…”
    I telecommuted 4 days per week (1 day in office) for 16 years. In my case, this level of telecommuting was a bit much. I found that in-office face time was critical for organizational advancement, professional growth, and just general sanity. I’m sure it varies by industry and employer – and personal preference – but its hard to replace the benefits that come about from working in a location where you’re physically surrounded by smart, talented colleagues.

  • Joe R.

    Perhaps but the price for that is having to endure often lengthy, stressful commutes. I’m generally a loner, work independently, and can successfully manage even complex projects remotely. Hence no real benefit for me personally or professionally to be on site. It’s not that I might not mind it, only that the hassles it entails, including working hours which may not be my personal preference, make it a poor trade off. As a good example, the project I’m currently on has some people working in a lab in NJ. Obviously commuting isn’t remotely feasible given that it’s 3+ hours each way. Relocating for what is a temporary gig isn’t feasible, either, as living expenses would eat up a good part of my earnings. I would also have needed to buy a car and get a driver’s license unless I found housing very close to the lab (unlikely given its rural location). And finally I would HATE living there. Whatever the benefits of interaction during the work day, they would be offset by an unstimulating environment the rest of the time. Oh, and they usually work typical day hours, which as a night person I can’t stand.

    So really for me it’s mostly negatives. If on the other hand a work location was a few minutes walk, I worked with a bunch of other night owls, perhaps I might prefer it over working at home.

    One day a week on site to me seems like a nice balance, provided the commute is reasonable. Obviously for me 3 hours each way was a bit much to do even weekly. I did go on site a few times though. It was a nice break from the routine, but not sure I’d have wanted to do it any more often than that.

  • Stephen Simac

    Or states could charge vehicle registration fees based on their loaded weight, size and number of tires, and top speed, all contributors to road erosion and traffic enforcement expense. Owners would begin to downsize if these fees were based on actual costs, because they are heavily subsidized now.

  • rossb

    Or you could just raise gas taxes.

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