To fight global warming, we also need to rethink transportation

It doesn't get much more visionary and ambitious than Al Gore's recent speech on energy and climate change, and this sentence in particular:

Today I challenge our nation to commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years.

If you missed it, you can find the full text here or read a helpfully annotated version here.

My only quibble with this fantastic speech was that Gore said little about the transportation sector, which is the second largest contributor to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Changing our transportation policies and funding priorities could greatly help us address the climate change emergency. More on that after the jump.  

Gore touched on transportation policy in this passage:

We could further increase the value and efficiency of a Unified National Grid by helping our struggling auto giants switch to the manufacture of plug-in electric cars. An electric vehicle fleet would sharply reduce the cost of driving a car, reduce pollution, and increase the flexibility of our electricity grid.

At the same time, of course, we need to greatly improve our commitment to efficiency and conservation. That's the best investment we can make.

I agree, but switching from gasoline-powered to electric cars and trucks will take time and will increase demand for electricity. Meanwhile, vehicle miles traveled in the United States have been increasing at an unsustainable rate:

Since 1980, the number of miles Americans drive has grown three times faster than population, and almost twice as fast as vehicle registrations.

Last week 41 members of Congress have signed a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi urging Congress to address transportation issues in forthcoming legislation on climate change.

The text of that letter and list of members who signed can be found here. (Chris Shays of Connecticut was the only Republican to sign.) Among other things, the letter written by Ellen Tauscher (D, CA-10) and Earl "the Bike" Blumenauer (D, OR-03) noted that

surface transportation produces one-third of the United States' greenhouse gases, and sixty percent of these emissions come from personal vehicle use. Last year, Congress demonstrated leadership on climate change by raising CAFE standards to thirty-five miles per gallon by 2020. However, recent studies suggest that the expected increase in Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMTs) will negate both higher CAFE standards and a reduction of carbon content in fuel. If VMTs are not reduced, transportation sector emissions will rise forty percent above 1990 levels by 2030.

Through climate change legislation, we believe that Congress should encourage greater use of VMT-reducing strategies, especially public transportation. Significant funds should be dedicated to increase public transit, intercity passenger rail, freight rail capacity, intelligent transportation systems, and bicycle and pedestrian alternatives. In addition, the legislation should encourage smart growth and transit-oriented development.

Not that transportation policies can solve this problem entirely. The 2007 publication Growing Cooler: The Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change makes a strong case for better urban planning and more compact development:

"Curbing emissions from cars depends on a three-legged stool: improved vehicle efficiency, cleaner fuels, and a reduction in driving," said lead author Reid Ewing, Research Professor at the National Center for Smart Growth, University of Maryland. "The research shows that one of the best ways to reduce vehicle travel is to build places where people can accomplish more with less driving."

Congress can't single-handedly change sprawling development patterns, but federal transportation policies can make it easier for Americans to drive less while getting where they need to go. The federal highway bill will need to be reauthorized in 2009, and we can't afford financially or environmentally to let earmarks for new road construction dominate that bill.

Representatives Tauscher and Tom Petri (R, WI-06), both members of the House Transportation Committee, are forming a "Metropolitan Mobility Caucus" to revamp federal transportation policy. Click the link to read their "Dear colleague" letter, which describes the "fresh approach" they would like to take in the next highway bill.

There will be massive institutional resistance to these changes in transportation policy, just as powerful corporate interests will fight efforts to abandon fossil fuels as our primary source of electricity generation.

Next year the progressive movement will have a lot on our plate, with (we hope) a new Democratic president and a larger Democratic majority in Congress. There will be a long list of wrongs to right and messes to clean up.

I encourage activists and bloggers who care about global warming to keep your eye on transportation policy and get involved when these battles are joined next year. The Drum Major Institute is already on the case, but it will take a huge effort by a lot of people to give transportation issues the prominence they deserve in our conversation on climate change.

Tags: Al Gore, Climate change, Earl Blumenauer, electric cars, Ellen Tauscher, Energy, Global Warming, renewable energy, Tom Petri, transportation, transportation policy, VMTs (all tags)

Comments

11 Comments

Re: To fight global warming, we also need to rethi

transit patterns have for some time been catching up with other types of pollutants. Correct me if I'm wrong but I do believe that car usage is the #1 overall pollutant in the U.S.

In any regard, it's quite sad how some cities have fared in recent years in regards to providing reliable, clean  and safe coverage.

Chicago for the better of 3 years now has been fighting severe service cuts at a time when ridership has increased by over 100k riders per work day. A good deal of the system's rail is decaying which allows for a maximum of 15 mile per hour trains where they should be cruising at speeds of over 70mph.

The latest idea to allow for people to actually be able to board overcrowded trains is to tear the seats out of some rail cars. Most world cities would resort to more service, not creating cattle cars.

New York's system has seen another budget cut of $61 million this year.

by alex100 2008-07-19 04:42AM | 0 recs
Re: To fight global warming
This past week Neil Young was on Letterman and Charlie Rose...New movie coming out.. A major project he is now involved  is fuel efficient big engines...Here is the Rose Show where he talks about it..
http://www.charlierose.com/shows/2008/07 /17/1/a-conversation-with-neil-young
by nogo postal 2008-07-19 05:06AM | 0 recs
by nogo postal 2008-07-19 05:09AM | 0 recs
by nogo postal 2008-07-19 05:12AM | 0 recs
Re: To fight global warming, we also need to rethi
tax incentive for companies to move towards tele-commuting.  It's rediculous the smount of energy we expend moving folks from home to a cube farm where they sit in front of a monitor all day, or moving business people to meetings around the country when the same work could be accomplished through tele-conferencing.
the structure of work has not adapted to and capitalized fully on the digital revolution.  Folks driving to an office is like still beating our clothes on a rock.
And don't get me started on printing out forms on paper so people can fil them out because Excel is scary.
by grassrootsorganizer 2008-07-19 05:15AM | 0 recs
I'll look forward to your post at FDL

It will also help if we get a handle on sprawl. It's not even economically viable--the homes in the outermost suburbs have lost more of their value than homes closer to city centers. I can't find the link right now, but I saw it recently.

by desmoinesdem 2008-07-19 05:30AM | 0 recs
Gore never mentions the Livestock Industry either.

It actually contributes more greenhouse gases than the transportation industry, according to the UN.

http://www.fao.org/newsroom/en/news/2006 /1000448/index.html

by Bush Bites 2008-07-19 09:38AM | 0 recs
Need to rethink land policy

More development should be subsidized in mass transit centers and walkable neighborhoods which will reduce or minimize the need to drive, whether they be in cities or in suburban poles.  Part of this requires a psychological shift - people willing to embrace denser, multilevel neighborhoods.  In terms of the reductions in household transportation costs the end result would benefit residents as well as the environment.

by Mr DC 2008-07-19 10:35AM | 0 recs
Re: Need to rethink land policy

I agree completely, and if you haven't read the Growing Cooler report, it's right up your alley.

There is a lot of demand for housing in these compact, walkable neighborhoods. In many communities the homes in the more walkable, transit-accessible neighborhoods have held their value better than the far-flung suburban homes.

In the Des Moines, the downtown area has a lower vacancy rate for apartments than any other neighborhood, including the suburbs.

We need to do a better job of educating city officials about the benefits of mixed-use development (which is too often prohibited by zoning ordinances).

Developers are often afraid to take a chance on building this kind of housing. It's easier to build a cookie-cutter subdivision like everyone else.

In Iowa, the Center on Sustainable Communities (http://www.icosc.com) tries to educate developers about green building practices.

by desmoinesdem 2008-07-19 04:46PM | 0 recs
COAL is public enemy #1

Coal based electrical generation is by far the #1 problem moving forward, and unfortunately, the economic incentives all point toward using more coal unless we change government policies. For transportation, on the other hand, drivers already have a big incentive to reduce miles driven. Gas is just under $5 gallon where I live, and will likely go up more.

COAL, COAL, COAL -- that is the big political struggle that we have ahead.

by Mark Wallace 2008-07-19 08:23PM | 0 recs
tell me about it

In Iowa the Democrats on the state utilities board voted to approve an application for a new coal-fired power plan near Marshalltown:

http://www.bleedingheartland.com/showDia ry.do?diaryId=1333

Unfortunately, Iowa Utilities Board chairman John Norris appears to be convinced that we won't be able to meet our baseload needs without new coal or nuclear power, and since no one wants to build nuclear in Iowa, he is inclined to approve of new coal plants:

http://www.bleedingheartland.com/showDia ry.do?diaryId=1497

Norris is on the DNC's platform committee, so if anyone knows someone else who will be on the platform committee in Denver, please encourage that person to give Norris a nudge in the Al Gore direction.

by desmoinesdem 2008-07-20 07:15AM | 0 recs

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