Op-Ed: US Should Be More Transparent About Our Transportation Emissions — Our Health & Climate Depend On It

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A stronger federal proposal would make grounds to help us reach climate goals, make communities healthier, and invest in the right projects.

By Jesse Prentice-Dunn, Principal RMI, America is All In coalition

Our country is reeling yet again from another season of climate-charged extreme weather events, leaving Americans wondering if our towns, cities and states can meet these more frequent and severe tests. Unfortunately, science and evidence from recent years signals that more of these storms, severe drought, and climate-fueled fires will be a very real part of our future. Even though we cannot control that reality, we can make decisions today that will improve our infrastructure and climate resilience of tomorrow.

Right now, the Biden administration has two weeks left to hear from Americans on a proposal that would require states, cities and towns to track and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that are a direct result of highway activity. While this is a critical next step to ensure that transportation sector emissions are truly reduced, the proposal should go further towards incentivizing local governments to share that transportation emissions data with the public.

Making this data easily accessible — allowing the public to see how their states and localities are doing in slashing emissions from the transportation sector, which is the largest source of US greenhouse gas emissions — will be a critical part of holding decision makers accountable. It will allow us to track our tax dollars at work, from improving our existing infrastructure to investing in projects that will reduce overall emissions. Fortunately and in many ways, the US is finally taking serious its commitment to fighting climate change — which includes addressing pollution from transportation. If you look at the last two years alone, it’s easy to see that the US transportation system is undergoing a makeover. Vehicle electrification, infrastructure investment, and other modes of transportation, from e-bikes to new routes on the Amtrak, are becoming hot topics.

This year, we’ve seen the biggest automakers race to adopt new business plans that are centered on decarbonization and electrification. Relatedly, all 50 states and Puerto Rico have submitted plans to use federal funding for new car charging infrastructure. The Environmental Protection Agency just doubled its funding for new electric buses to meet skyrocketing demand. On top of all of that, the federal government passed a bipartisan infrastructure funding package which marks the biggest investment to upgrade our transportation system in American history.

With such a plethora of progress, it’s time to track how and if these policy changes will deliver actual results. We need to ensure the investments we are making and the projects we are breaking ground on are good for our health, our communities and the climate. Just as 90% of Fortune 500 companies now release information about their emissions to their investors, the public too has a vested interest in understanding how the actions of their local government might impact their child’s asthma or reduce their community’s resilience to extreme weather events.

The stakes could not be higher in the emissions-intensive transportation sector. Recent analysis shows that the investments from the bipartisan infrastructure funding package could actually increase greenhouse gas emissions over ten years, depending on how the funds are spent.

For instance, if most of the federal funding goes to adding new lanes to highways, research from Georgetown Climate Center suggests that total vehicle emissions would go up, and there would be little to no benefit toward reducing car traffic and congestion. If that same money, however, is invested in cleaner, more efficient transit infrastructure projects like rail, bikeways and EV charging stations, it would result in an overall reduction in vehicle pollution while also creating a more reliable transportation system for Americans. University of Maryland’s Center for Global Sustainability research shows that a 39% reduction in transportation emissions is possible by 2030 if the right projects are prioritized.

Governments have a major role to play in ensuring that recent, historic waves of investment are put to best use. Secretary Buttigieg and the Department of Transportation can make that process easier by recommending strategies for states and communities to reduce vehicle miles traveled and increase vehicle electrification to meet our national climate goals. DOT should then work to track and release progress reports for states, localities and the public to understand and incorporate into future planning. With so many American communities now confronting the reality of climate change, and the opportunity to harness once-in-a-generation funding, there has never been a more important time to increase public involvement and promote sustainable transportation projects that can make our country cleaner, healthier, and more resilient.

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