The Biggest Source of Carbon Emissions or the Best Opportunity? A Q&A on the Future of Transportation with Austin Brown.
Dr. Austin Brown is the Executive Director of the UC Davis Policy Institute for Energy, Environment, and the Economy – and an expert on the intersection of transportation and energy policy. He’s been an integral advisor to the work of the Alliance’s 50x50 Commission. The Blog to Save Energy caught up with him recently to hear his outlook on coming changes in American transportation.
Alliance: For a few years now, transportation has been a bigger source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. than electric power generation. How did we get here?
Brown: Over the past decade, we have seen a lot of focus on the previous #1 emitting sector, electricity. These efforts have spurred a long-term trend toward cheaper and better renewable power. Progress in energy efficiency has also meant that total electric demand has been flat even with economic growth.
While focusing on energy, though, we neglected transportation. Over the last few years, driving and freight demand both increased and there has been a shift (facilitated by low gas prices) toward larger, less efficient vehicles. Hence despite great strides in electric vehicle (EV) deployment, the transportation sector has taken the dubious “number-one emitter” honor from the electricity sector.
Alliance: A few decades from now, when we look back (we hope!) at the deep reductions in energy use and carbon emission from our transportation sector, what do you think will have been the biggest pieces of how it happened?
Brown: Here’s where we get to the (mostly) good news. There are so many reasons to be excited by the future of transportation and how it can help us reduce energy use, oil dependence, and emissions.
Item number one is electrification of transportation. Electrifying personal light-duty vehicles (cars and light trucks), in particular, is looking more doable than ever before. Batteries and EV technology are improving at a remarkable rate. EVs are likely to become even more popular as people become more familiar with the many options out there and see how great EV performance can be. New mobility technology, pooling of rides, and vehicle automation also have the potential to make personal transportation better than what we have today in every way.
The daunting part is just how far we have to go and how big the problem is. Personal light-duty vehicles contribute about half of U.S. transportation emissions, but avoiding the worst consequences of global climate change requires reducing U.S. transportation emissions by 80% or more. So we need to pay attention to every transportation subsector, including heavy-duty trucks, rail, and ships. We also need to get serious about providing more and better options for people to get around without driving alone, such as via transit and active transportation (walking and bicycling).
Alliance: We’ve seen the numbers showing public transit ridership dropping in a number of U.S. metro areas, which is troubling from an energy use and emissions perspective. Do you have a grasp of what’s going on there, and where do you think this trend is headed?
Brown: Most transit markets have seen significant declines in ridership over the last decade. It’s fashionable to blame new mobility companies (like Lyft and Uber) that are providing cheap and easy ways to get a ride. These companies have indeed taken some riders from transit in some markets, but they are also offering a valuable new transportation choice for riders.
The real problem is that we have neglected transit as a priority for decades. Most of the transit declines we’re seeing started long before new mobility showed up. Policies such as funding roads from general funds rather than user fees act as huge subsidies to the personal automobile. Transit suffers as a result.
Perhaps the most problematic idea out there is that cities can neglect or get rid of their transit because new mobility will be able to provide the same service without public funding. That’s just wrong. Transit can do much to improve transportation equity and efficiency. Backing away from those benefits is the wrong move.
Alliance: You’ve thought a lot about autonomous vehicles and the effects they could have on our energy use – anywhere from potentially significant decreases to big increases. What’s going to determine what scenario we actually get to? Is this mostly about federal, state, or local policies?
Brown: Researchers don’t yet know whether automated vehicles will increase or decrease emissions on net. A key question we need to answer is: will automated vehicles enable a future where most mobility is shared and electric, or will they just facilitate even greater urban sprawl and more vehicle miles traveled?
Fortunately, we get to choose the answer to this question as a society. Smart policy can ensure that we realize the benefits automated vehicles have to offer while minimizing adverse consequences. Federal policy should include flexible and science-based standards that ensure consistency across jurisdictional boundaries while empowering state and local governments to prioritize their own transportation goals. State and local governments need to implement policy mechanisms that prioritize transportation equity, sustainability, and safety, and need to rigorously track performance for continued improvement.
We can build a better transportation system if we focus on increasing consumer choice and aligning policy to support the transportation modes that benefit society as a whole – including through much lower emissions.