Many are optimistic about the decarbonization blueprint

By Michael Brenneis 

The Biden administration’s newly released National Blueprint for Transportation Decarbonization represents an historic mission alignment among federal agencies to meet an economy-wide goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by 2050. The U.S. Departments of Energy, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, along with the Environmental Protection Agency, have developed this joint strategy to guide the decarbonization of the transportation sector—the largest GHG contributor, currently generating roughly one-third of U.S. emissions. 

The strategy focuses on three areas to achieve a “clean, safe, secure, accessible, affordable, equitable, and decarbonized transportation system”:  

  1. Convenience. Support more compact communities that locate housing near enough to essential services and jobs that people can choose active or shared modes of travel. It’s what we used to refer to as density but is now called “increased convenience.”
  2. Efficiency. Guide investments into more efficient travel modes such as public transit, and into the increased efficiency of all vehicles. 
  3. Clean energy. Fund research and incentives to guide the transition to zero emission vehicles that use electricity generated by sustainable fuels. Equity and inclusion are core principles of each effort.

As a recent Treehugger article points out, it’s heartening to see the association of land use and transportation in this document. Reinvesting in town centers that support a diverse clustering of housing and essential destinations—rural, suburban, and urban alike—can allow people to reduce their reliance on cars for day-to-day activities. 

The blueprint also recognizes that electrification is not the only solution. Advocates, however, argue that the administration is focusing too heavily on electrification to the detriment of other strategies, and that even rapid implementation may not allow us to meet our goals. Production of the materials necessary to produce electric vehicles may fall short. And EVs come with their own set of environmental consequences including rare-earth metal mining and particulates from brake and tire wear. Depending on how it’s regulated, automation has the potential to short circuit any benefits.  

Apart from a smaller carbon footprint, reducing the amount we drive has benefits to health and safety from cleaner air to allowing more physical activity. As the blueprint states, “every hour we don’t spend sitting in traffic is an hour we can spend focused on the things and the people we love.” 

As SSTI and others have pointed out, if we don’t stem growth in vehicle miles travelled (VMT), many of the efforts outlined in the blueprint could be swamped by more and more driving. Reducing VMT, in concert with other efforts such as raising fuel economy of gas-powered vehicles and cleaner power generation, has the potential to significantly reduce emissions. 

Figure 1. CO2 emissions given electrification based on industry forecasts, paired with major fuel economy improvements.

States, Tribes, local governments, and private industries play a big role in the potential success of the priorities laid out in the blueprint. Not all partners are poised to begin implementing these measures, nor do all of them have the capacity in place. Finally, questions remain as to whether we have the political will to sustain these measures and the sacrifices they demand. Nonetheless, the plan offers strong organizing principles and sets the country on the right track for tackling ambitious climate goals. 

Photo Credit: Ian Sane via Flickr, unmodified. License