It's Time to Cut Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Transportation

Transportation Ranks 1st in Emissions that Cause Climate Change


The old adage, “You can’t manage what you don’t measure,” applies to transportation planning. When Congress passed MAP-21, a reauthorization of federal transportation legislation, it directed the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to set new performance measures to ensure that recipients of federal transportation funds spend the money in ways that efficiently advance the public interest. Recipients of funds would be required to make investments that reduce congestion, improve system reliability, improve freight movement, and advance environmental sustainability.

One question the FHWA is considering is whether to adopt a greenhouse gas (GHG) performance measure. At a basic level, a GHG performance measure would require metropolitan areas and state transportation departments to measure the impact of transportation projects on GHG emissions and adopt goals for reducing GHG emissions.

SWEEP provided comments to the FHWA in support of the establishment of a GHG performance measure.  Consideration of this new performance measure is timely since this year was the first that transportation overtook electricity generation as the largest source of GHG emissions in the United States.  

The U.S. is a signatory to the Paris climate accords, which commit us to reductions in GHG emissions sufficient to avoid a 2-degree Celsius rise in global temperatures. This will require a reduction in GHG emissions of at least 80% by 2050. Achieving this goal will require dramatic reductions in emissions from every major sector, including transportation.

A promising development is that emissions from conventional power plant generation of electricity have dropped significantly due to three factors: energy efficiency improvements have limited growth in demand, coal generation has been displaced by natural gas, and the amount of electricity generated by solar and wind has increased rapidly.

Transportation emissions on the other hand have dropped only slightly since 2005 and then surged in the past two years as low gas prices spurred growth in travel plus a shift from passenger cars to light trucks and SUVs.

Achieving significant reductions in GHG emissions from transportation will require multiple strategies: reducing car travel, increasing the fuel efficiency of both cars and trucks, switching to hydrogen or low carbon biofuels for long-haul trucking, and switching essentially all cars to electricity as a fuel. 

Significant economic benefits would be one result of these strategies.  SWEEP has analyzed a scenario that reduced vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in the largest metropolitan areas in Colorado by 1% annually and achieved a 40% market penetration of electric vehicles by 2040. In this scenario, metropolitan areas experienced a $10 billion savings on infrastructure and fuel costs between 2012 and 2040.

SWEEP also developed a scenario to reduce GHG emissions from the transportation sector in Nevada and found that these strategies would save a typical Nevada family $600-$900 per year.

A number of transportation agencies in Southwest states support GHG performance measures. For example, the Denver Regional Council of Governments submitted comments stating, “DRCOG supports establishing measures of transportation-related CO2 emissions to be calculated and 
tracked by states and metropolitan planning organizations. DRCOG has adopted a goal to reduce per capita transportation CO2 emissions by 60% by 2040.”

The Colorado Department of Transportation commented, “Currently, the transportation sector is the number one source of GHG emissions in the U.S. We need a national performance measure for GHGs to encourage and track efforts to reduce GHG emissions from the transportation sector."

Given the substantial benefits that would flow from strategies to reduce GHG emissions from transportation—including reduced fuel costs to consumers, reduced public infrastructure costs, and cleaner air in addition to major climate benefits— states and metropolitan areas across the Southwest should begin tracking GHG emissions and setting targets to reduce those emissions regardless of the ultimate decision from the FHWA.

Will Toor serves as the Director of the Transportation Program at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project. He previously was a Boulder County Commissioner; Mayor of Boulder, Colorado; and chairman of the Denver Regional Council of Governments. He played a strong role in the development of the Boulder community transit network, EcoPass unlimited access transit pass, ClimateSmart Loan program and EnergySmart program.


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