How innovative policies can help clean the transportation sector

As climate week gets underway, policymakers should prioritize ways to reduce emissions from one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gases: the transportation sector. A diverse group of stakeholders recently came together to discuss opportunities to do just that.

Transportation accounts for nearly one third of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. and a substantial share of local pollution in urban areas. Not only do these emissions greatly contribute to climate change, they can cause significant health concerns, from respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses, to premature mortality. Furthermore, communities of color and low-income communities have suffered much more from the health and well-being impacts of transportation-related air pollution than non-disadvantaged communities. Thus, it is both a social and environmental imperative to clean our transportation system.

However, cleaning our transportation system is not a trivial task—the effects of pollution vary widely in space and across different communities; the impacts of pollution are felt locally, regionally and globally; and multiple challenges across many different sectors of our economy to achieving this goal still exist. We will need a coordinated, multi-sector approach, with major investments and targeted policies.

To discuss these solutions and explore opportunities, Resources for the Future, Environmental Defense Fund, and Duke University’s Nicholas Institute hosted a two-day virtual workshop in July 2020. We invited individuals from all over the country, and from different sectors, including local governments, non-governmental organizations, stakeholder and community groups, industry, and academics, in an effort to increase communication across sectors, explore diverse policy solutions, and hear from different points of view.

Though we heard diverse approaches and assumptions from the different speakers and participants, we all agreed on the following: Cleaning our transportation system is a necessary and urgent action, and we can leverage this transformation to achieve even more improvements in social outcomes, above and beyond those caused by the transportation sector.

Panel I: Effectiveness and Behavioral Responses to Carbon Pricing and Vehicle Regulations under Existing Policies  

The first panel of the day discussed the effectiveness of carbon pricing and vehicle regulations on cleaning the transportation system, given existing policies and the nature of our “business as usual” future.

One of the main takeaways: though carbon and gasoline taxes can and have had an impact on reducing gasoline consumption, these taxes won’t be enough to achieve the major structural changes needed for the sector.

Other policies, such as vehicle efficiency standards and scrappage programs (like cash-for-clunkers), can help ensure older vehicles are replaced with better, more efficient (or even electric) alternatives, and can also work in conjunction with gasoline and carbon taxes to help achieve a cleaner transportation system. However, these programs may cause some unintended consequences if not pursued cautiously or developed jointly with policies that increase access to alternative modes of transportation.

Panel II: Distributional Effects of Transportation Policy

The workshop’s second panel focused on how to structure transportation policies to reduce the inequalities that transport-related pollution creates among different communities. The speakers highlighted the many different types of inequalities created by unjust and problematic housing and transportation policies, magnified by disadvantaged communities’ greater exposure to pollution, and how the transformation of the system can be leveraged to improve these distributional outcomes.

To be able to achieve these improvements, several steps must be taken, including:

  • Use data and modeling to identify disadvantaged communities most affected by transportation pollution;
  • Actively engage with community and environmental justice groups from the beginning when setting policy in order to identify their most pressing issues and concerns and ensure they have a seat at the table;
  • Conduct research to identify the most beneficial policies and actions for these communities and address their concerns;
  • Work to avoid unintended consequences of transportation policy that may harm disadvantaged communities in our quest to green the transportation system.

Panel III: Investments on Carbon Revenue: Efficacy and Impacts Across Groups

Our third panel explored the many avenues for investments of revenue raised from policies such as a carbon tax. There exist almost infinite options for investments- in both the private and public sectors, to individuals or corporations, for education and behavior modification, to infrastructure and technology, and so much more. Identifying the investment that provides the largest bang for buck is a challenge worth pursuing in order to maximize the benefits of our clean transportation transformation.

One of the difficulties is understanding the distributional impacts of investments. It is important to identify who will benefit the most from these investments, and whether there are important spillovers such as job creation. When the benefits of an investment are diffuse or long term, this can create a political challenge in its implementation. Furthermore, understanding the policy context around the investment is key: non-transportation-related policies such as zoning or housing regulations can affect the benefits of any investment in this space. For example, changing zoning rules could improve access to alternative modes of transportation, making investments in electric vehicle charging stations and public transit more effective at shifting driving away from private, fossil-fueled vehicles.

Panel IV: Changing the Rules: State and Local Policies and Potential Interactions with Carbon Pricing

The final panel of the day discussed how non-carbon pricing policies at the state and local level may interact with existing carbon policies, such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI, a regional cap and trade program covering GHG emissions from 10 states in the northeast). Though cap and trade or carbon pricing sends a price signal to reduce carbon emissions, it alone may not be enough to achieve the large transformation required.

Alternative policies, such as the low carbon fuel standard, congestion pricing, or even policies outside of the transportation sector can help to bring about even greater reductions of transportation emissions, especially when combined with carbon pricing policies.

Electricity sector policies are an especially important one to get right. As our transportation system becomes less reliant on gasoline and more reliant on electricity for fueling, we need to ensure that the electric sector is clean (and carbon pricing can play an important role in achieving this outcome), while also implementing policies to reduce the costs that charging vehicles can place on the system.

A Vision for a Clean Transportation Future

This workshop made a strong case for urgent action—the emissions associated with transportation are too large and affect too many vulnerable communities to allow the status quo to continue unabated. Many different types of policies can be implemented, and even in the face of political challenges – particularly at the federal level – cities and states across the country are already taking action.

The speakers envisioned a future where transportation is clean; where all individuals across the country, regardless of where they live, have mobility access and alternatives in their modes of travel; where investments are made with an eye towards maximizing the public benefit and ensuring those most disadvantaged are uplifted; and where all communities have a voice in shaping the path of this clean transformation. This clean future exists; now it is up to us to shape policies in order to achieve it.

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