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The path to decarbonizing transport requires swift, coordinated action

Meaningful progress toward transport decarbonization requires existing technologies, infrastructure investment and accelerated deployment of new, large-scale solutions.

Car on forest road with Planet Earth imposed on forest

Image via Shutterstock/Avigator Fortuner

[GreenBiz publishes a range of perspectives on the transition to a clean economy. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the position of GreenBiz.]

Scientific consensus has long established that fossil fuel combustion is the main source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions driving climate change. Transportation, moving people and goods, is the largest GHG emitting sector in the United States, as it is primarily powered through the combustion of gasoline and diesel.

A critical deadline is looming for the U.S. to reduce its fossil fuel use, especially for transportation. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report warns that, without swift action, the severe impacts of climate change will reach a point of no return, including extreme temperatures, water sanitation issues and water shortages, food scarcity and transportation infrastructure disruption. The report states that we must take measures to accelerate progress toward our net-zero goal, currently 2050, if we are to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Our transportation sector is a complex, interconnected network of modes — ships, rail, trucks, planes and passenger vehicles — that requires a comprehensive national policy framework to reach a fully decarbonized future. One way or another, the choices we make over the next decade will result in a rapid and transformational shift in our transportation system. If we don’t move faster to decarbonize, we will fail to limit warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius. Climate impacts will continue to worsen with catastrophic consequences for our economy, and, more important, for humankind. Every incremental degree of warming will multiply the negative climate impacts, making adaptation impossible. Our infrastructure could literally crumble under rising seas, megastorms and burnishing heat.

But there is no one solution, no one choice, that will help us decarbonize at the rate we need. Even with existing solutions, our infrastructure needs to be updated to handle the demand for electricity as we implement vehicle electrification and low carbon technologies. We must use the technologies that already exist for decarbonizing transportation, and we must also address emissions from the vehicles that are on the road and will be for decades.

Thankfully, the federal government is finally taking meaningful action to decarbonize transportation by 2050. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s current proposed greenhouse gas rule for passenger vehicles is a critical step forward, and we must continue looking toward other transportation subsectors, such as shipping and rail. The Department of Energy has continued funding clean transportation research and action plans, including the Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) Grand Challenge to decarbonize aviation and the newly announced Clean Fuels and Products, Energy Earthshots initiative. Multiple agencies are working together to reduce our reliance on vehicle travel, electrify vehicles, deploy low-carbon liquid biofuels and improve our infrastructure, as laid out in The Blueprint for Transportation Decarbonization. Congress has passed legislation that provides funding for electric vehicle infrastructure and incentives for clean fuels. These are all a great start, and we must continue pushing toward clean solutions together to meet our goals. Coordinated action to promote all clean transportation options is necessary. 

The Institute for Transportation Decarbonization (ITD) launched with a goal of promoting such a coordinated effort. Our report, "Pathway to Net Zero Transportation in the U.S.," outlines available transportation technologies that could lead to a net-zero sector by 2050. This report complements the U.S. National Blueprint for Transportation Decarbonization, which highlights the need to reduce vehicle miles and improve walkable cities with transit options. Both reports and the IPCC recommend that the U.S. continue researching and implementing policies that will result in large-scale and accelerated deployment of clean transportation technologies.

The ITD report recommends policy actions that could lead to increased deployment of clean transportation technologies. For example, increased research support, combined with incentives for deployment of technologies that cut emissions — especially in industries such as marine and aviation that are hard to electrify — could help to successfully decarbonize with the urgency needed to stave off public health and climate impacts. Policymakers must pursue all available technology options to immediately reduce emissions, including increased support for low-carbon liquid fuels, vehicle electrification, carbon capture and sequestration, along with building the infrastructure needed to support these solutions.

Policies must prioritize the reduction of travel in individual vehicles, fund efficient and robust public transportation, and improve our pedestrian and cycling infrastructure so that people feel safe outside their cars. We must invest in infrastructure that supports public transportation and housing that is closer to the workplace for walkable and bikeable cities. We must also continue to decarbonize the industries that are manufacturing vehicles, batteries, steel and cement, while cleaning up and strengthening our power grid.

Unfortunately, the fossil fuel industry has misled the public, fought the electrification of vehicles, undermined the use of biofuels and pitted clean technologies against each other. Choosing between clean electricity and liquid biofuels is a false choice. The reality is that we must cease using fossil fuels and replace them with both low carbon liquid clean fuels and electric drivetrains. The U.S. must prioritize developing and deploying all the technologies we have that will lower our consumption of fossil fuels while reducing overall greenhouse gas and criteria pollutants. Electric vehicles have been proven to reduce lifetime emissions compared to internal combustion engine vehicles. Clean fuels derived from biomass have been shown to reduce lifecycle emissions of GHGs, especially in applications for heavy-duty travel, aviation and marine transport. Importantly, clean fuels have also been shown to reduce pollution, such as particulate matter, that causes asthma and other health problems.

The IPCC is clear: We can choose to adapt to a climate-driven disaster that will force us to rebuild our transportation infrastructure, or we can use the clean technologies we already have to transform and improve our lives.

It’s not a zero-sum challenge — we must use all the tools we already have to transition away from fossil fuels.

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