Clean Transportation Doesn’t Need To Be A Distant Utopia

By John Olivieri
21st Century Transportation Campaign Director

Recently, Frontier Group, a public policy think tank, released a new report titled, “A New Way Forward: Envisioning a Transportation System Without Carbon Pollution.” In the report, Frontier Group makes the case that a clean transportation system does not need to be a distant utopia — in fact, far from it; the tools we need to eliminate global warming pollution from transportation already exist today. 

For many, when they think of combating global warming, they think of solar panels on rooftops and eliminating coal fired power plants. But, the truth is, there is not an effective solution to address global warming that does not deal with transportation as well. While many may be unaware, our current transportation system is a big part of the problem, producing more than 30 percent of total U.S. carbon emissions and generating more greenhouse gas pollution than any entire nation in the world — except China, India, and Russia. 1, 2 Eliminating or reducing those emissions has to be part of the solution.

Luckily, America already has the tools it needs to create a functioning transportation system that significantly reduces carbon pollution. These tools can include: encouraging smart growth in urban areas; repowering vehicles to run on electricity; investing in public transportation; employing smart pricing techniques; creating healthy walkable and bikeable communities; and incorporating new technology like ridesharing, bikesharing, and carsharing. When taken together and combined with other smart strategies, the report finds that these tools can reduce emissions from transportation by up to 90 percent by 2050.

The report’s findings could not be timelier. In December 2015, global leaders adopted the Paris Climate Agreement, committing 175 countries to efforts to limit global warming to 2° Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures, with hopes to even limit that rise to no more than 1.5° Celsius. 3 If the United States truly wishes to make a difference and abide by the terms of the recent Paris Agreement, then action must start now. 

Fortunately, there is a ready-made opportunity to do just that. The U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT) is currently considering a new rule that will set standards for the performance of state-level transportation investments. These standards seek to bring a measure of accountability to transportation project selection and long-term planning, and align state spending priorities with national goals like fighting air pollution. Yet, as currently drafted, the rule does not set a standard for reduction of carbon emissions. If the final version of the rule also fails to include carbon emissions, we will have missed a historic opportunity to make meaningful progress in the fight against global warming. 

As the old saying goes, “what gets measured gets managed” — and right now, we fail to even measure, let alone meaningfully consider the amount of carbon pollution local, long-term transportation plans will create. We must ensure that local metropolitan planning organizations are required to set goals to reduce carbon emissions from transportation, track and measure their results, and publicly account for their progress if we are to achieve real positive and lasting change.

Eliminating carbon pollution from transportation is more than an environmental issue; it is also a pressing public health issue that affects tens of thousands of Americans each year. A study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that there are 53,000 lives lost prematurely each year as a result of exposure to air pollution from transportation. 4 Similarly, a study by NASA and Duke University has found that we can save 120,000 lives by 2030 by reducing emissions from transportation. 5

If we value our health, and the health of our families, then we must act aggressively to combat transportation emissions. We have the tools, now all we need is the political will to encourage their use, starting with a strong final rule from U.S. DOT that includes a carbon performance standard. 

1 Greenhouse Gas Inventory Data Explorer, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, April 30, 2015.

2Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions Data, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, February 23, 2016.

3 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Adoption of the Paris Agreement, 12 December 2015, archived at

4 F. Caiazzo et al, “Air pollution and early deaths in the United States. Part I: Quantifying the impact of major sectors in 2005,” Atmospheric Environmental Journal, May 31, 2013.

5 Drew T. Shindell et al., “Climate and health impacts of US emissions reductions consistent with 2°C,” Nature Climate Change, February 22, 2016.

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