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Watch that tailpipe! Transportation and Climate Change

Updated: Apr 8

What does transportation have to do with climate change? With the ease of traveling by car, one is a casual activity we do almost daily, and the other is a humanitarian crisis that seems gargantuan. Both are connected more than you may think.

Travel from light-duty vehicles (such as our passenger cars) and heavy-duty vehicles (like larger shipping trucks) contribute prodigious amounts of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases. Fumes from tailpipes can be hazardous for public health.

(Image by Andreas Lischka from Pixabay)

The connection between transportation and pollution is not a new one. With the expansion of suburbanization and highways after the Second World War, passenger vehicles and the morning commute suddenly became more viable. A new middle class, fueled by the post-war economic boom, was able to relocate and drive into the city center for work. The dramatic increase in vehicles increased air pollution significantly.

Despite the economic opportunities this created, rampant smog and air pollution from these vehicles and stationary sources caused health problems.

(from the EPA)

To combat toxic emissions, Congress passed, among other legislation, the Clean Air Act of 1970. The Clean Air Act was largely successful in reducing the smog and pollution.

The Act reportedly resulted in “98-99% cleaner for most tailpipe pollutants compared to the 1960s.” and “much cleaner” fuels that significantly reduced lead and sulfur emissions. Congress also established the EPA in 1970 through the National Environmental Policy Act to enforce and execute these policies.

The EPA themselves enacted legislation to improve fuel efficiency, for example, by launching the “fuel economy label” in 1974.

(from the EPA)

It has since undergone a few overhauls, but the premise remains the same: to help consumers make informed, economic, and environmentally-conscious purchases.

Despite previous efforts, emissions from passenger transportation remain high. In 2018, around 28 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions were produced from the transportation sector. A whopping 59 percent of those emissions stem from light-duty vehicles, such our passenger cars, SUVs, and shuttles.

Holistically, the transportation sector has increased in absolute emissions more than any other sector since 1990.

EPA numbers show that light-duty vehicles consistently emit around a thousand Teragrams -- over a billion metric tons -- of CO2 equivalent annually. For scale, the average car weighs about three tons.

The numbers mark a 21.6 percent increase in passenger car emissions and a 14 percent increase in light-duty vehicle emissions since 1990. The EPA has noted appropriately that “the transportation sector is one of the largest contributors to anthropogenic U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.”

(From Congressional Research Service)

What's currently being done?

Fortunately, global GHG emissions -- and those particularly rooted in transportation -- are a known target. The EPA created in 2005 the Renewable Fuel Standard Program, an effort to mitigate harmful emissions by replacing petroleum-based fuel with renewable fuels like biodiesel and cellulosic biofuel.

More recently, the EPA and Department of Transportation have set regulations on transportation emissions. The regulations prevent an additional six billion metric tons from cars sold between 2017 and 2025. They also increase gas mileage and protect consumer choice.

Federal agencies aren’t alone in combating transportation-based climate emissions -- many states also lead on the battlefront. Over twelve states have adopted the Zero Emissions Vehicle Program -- an effort to encourage “ultra-low-emission” vehicle sales.

Massachusetts has joined other East Coast states to forward the Transportation and Climate Initiative Program, which plans to invest around $300 million per year to “modernize transportation, improve public health, and combat climate change.”

That’s great, but what can I do?

We’re glad you asked. Although changes have been enacted on the federal, state, and municipal levels, your individual contributions towards climate change mitigation matter just as much.

In fact, they add up more quickly than you may expect. Because Americans drive so much, cutting back as little as 10% of driving could, according to the New York Times, cut as much as roughly 110 million metric tons of carbon dioxide... the same as taking about 28 coal-fired power plants offline for a year”.

The goal is within reach for many drivers. Mr. Tony Dutzik, a senior policy analyst at the Frontier Group, recommends substituting short car rides with walks and bike trips. “‘A low-hanging fruit is shorter rides’”, Dutzik said, “‘over one-third of all car trips are less than two miles, so walking, biking or taking public transport for some of those trips could add up. ‘“

For longer trips, consider driving in a more fuel-efficient manner. Idling less can help out. Idling your car not only wastes fuel, but it’s also dangerous for public health, and it adds to carbon emissions. Idling for over 10 minutes releases about a pound of CO2 -- emissions that quickly add up when thousands of cars are doing it across America.

In fact, a study conducted by the Environmental Defense Fund reported that idling cars in New York City alone contribute “130,000 tons of CO2 annually.” If these vehicles stopped idling it would “be equivalent to taking 18,000 cars off the road annually”. It’s efficient to turn your engine off if you plan to wait for more than 10 seconds.

The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy provides other tips for safe and efficient driving. They recommend drivers to reduce instances of sudden acceleration and to avoid carrying unnecessary weight, either on the roof or in the trunk of your car.

If you’re in the market for a new vehicle, consider investing in a fuel efficient (or even electric!) vehicle.

(Image by Paul Brennan; from Pixabay)

You could save hundreds of dollars by choosing a more efficient vehicle. More miles per gallon translates to less time at the gas pump too.

How will you choose to help? Rampant emissions from transportation isn’t a new issue -- our vehicles have contributed quite a bit to climate change for decades. Whether you choose to vote for green legislation or practice efficient driving technique, know that your contributions matter.

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