To fight global warming, we also need to rethink transportation
by desmoinesdem, Sat Jul 19, 2008 at 04:18:59 AM EDT
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.
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.