The path to decarbonizing transport requires swift, coordinated action

[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 repor

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