We are at a moment of truth for the global climate.
The Paris Climate Agreement, which went into force this month, commits the United States and the world to preventing the worst impacts of global warming. To meet our commitment, the United States will need to virtually eliminate carbon pollution from our economy by mid-century.
Transportation is the nation’s largest source of carbon pollution – so we can’t beat back global warming without changing how we get around.
Too often in the past, however, America has made transportation policy decisions as if the climate didn’t matter.
– Nearly nine out of every 10 dollars of government spending on transportation infrastructure since the 1950s have supported carbon-intensive ways of traveling like aviation and highway use.
– Nearly half of all state governments currently spend less than a penny per person per day on public transportation.
– At a time when Americans are yearning for opportunities to take part in healthy, low-carbon modes of travel like biking and walking, our tax code and land-use rules continue to subsidize and incentivize driving.
– Until recently, most states and metropolitan areas did not systematically consider climate change impacts when making transportation investment decisions.
No moment illustrated the disconnect between transportation policy and the climate better than the scene last December: as President Obama and world leaders were reaching a breakthrough climate agreement in Paris, Congress was approving a five-year transportation bill that doubled down on the highway-favoring policies that have shaped the world’s most polluting transportation system in terms of global warming emissions — ours.
We need a new approach.
Technology and social trends could be on the side of the climate. Electric vehicles are getting cheaper and better – just ask the 300,000 people who placed pre-orders for Tesla’s upcoming Model 3 electric car last spring. Americans, especially Millennials, increasingly favor walkable neighborhoods that are rich in low-carbon transportation options – making life both greener and more convenient. New mobility technologies and services – from carsharing to Uber to autonomous vehicles – create the possibility of new models for getting around our cities that are more efficient and affordable and better for the climate.
“With the transportation sector now an increasing source of carbon emissions in Virginia, low and zero-emission vehicles are becoming more important for the environment and the economy. Virginia produces no oil and therefore is forced to import these polluting and unhealthy products into our communities, sending money overseas that could be used here at home,” said Matthew Wade, the Deputy Director of Virginia Clean Cities. “By using cleaner domestic fuels such as electricity and hydrogen Virginians can improve their local air quality and support their local economies. As a coastal state threatened by climate change, Virginia’s communities should have increased access to these cleaner forms of transportation to ensure a more sustainable future all Virginians.”
But these 21st century advances are playing out within a policy framework that was developed to transition America out of the horse-and-buggy age – to promote the use of cars, and then get us onto highways. Our 21st century reality demands 21st century decisions. If we don’t reexamine the policies created generations ago in response to 20th century problems, we won’t be able to meet the present challenges – none of which is more profound or urgent than global warming.
What if we made transportation policy with the climate in mind? First, we’d ensure that climate impacts were factored into every transportation decision–starting with how we spend infrastructure dollars. Then we would push forward aggressively in the one area where the United States has been a leader: making cars and trucks more fuel-efficient and less polluting. We would adopt tax, budget and land use policies to make low-carbon transportation the cheapest, most convenient and most comfortable way to get around every American city. And we would support innovation to continually expand our toolbox of available options.
The transportation infrastructure of the future will be built in the next several years – because it can’t wait any longer. And it will last for decades. The policy decisions that result in that infrastructure will have repercussions for years to come. If we want to avoid dramatically rising seas, more intense storms, drought, extreme heat, and the displacement of millions of climate refugees, the choices we make today will go a long way toward deciding the outcome. The time to act is now.
For more, check out 50 Steps Toward Carbon-Free Transportation by clicking here.