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Electric vehicles alone can’t solve transportation’s climate problems

Electric vehicles alone can’t solve transportation’s climate problems

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When Chris and Melissa Bruntlett took their family from Vancouver to the Netherlands for a work trip in 2016, they didn’t expect the journey to change their lives. But after spending a few weeks in Dutch cities, their children, then aged 8 and 10, had become enamored of the local way of life and didn’t want to go back to Canada.

With fewer cars on the streets in the Netherlands, the Bruntlett children had the opportunity to explore their surroundings unchaperoned.

“This is a quality of life that Dutch children take completely for granted,” Chris Bruntlett said. “You see them everywhere within their cities — on the cycle tracks, in the public spaces — because the traffic has been calmed and the infrastructure provided to allow them that freedom and independence.”

Within a few years, the family had relocated to the Dutch city of Delft. Chris and Melissa are now global ambassadors for the Netherlands’ transportation model, publishing books and consulting with other countries and cities that want to become less dependent on cars.

Bicycle parking in Delft. (Image credit: Shyam via Unsplash)

Dutch cities weren’t always a haven for cyclists and pedestrians, Bruntlett said. The current system came about thanks to a series of policy decisions stretching back to the 1970s that eventually led to national regulations for urban road safety and street design.

In much of the world, of course, the car remains king — a fact that’s reflected in policy focus on electric vehicles, or EVs, as a decarbonization solution. But to Bruntlett, the emphasis on EVs is a missed opportunity.

“Our concern is that we’re putting all of our eggs in the electric car basket while ignoring the importance and the potential of modal shift,” he said, using a transportation planning term referring to a change in how people get around.

Transportation is the largest source of heat-trapping emissions in the United States and one of the largest globally, so there’s an urgent need to move away from fossil-fuel-powered engines. But with relatively little fanfare, many government officials across the globe are cautioning that while EVs are necessary, they’re not sufficient, for a number of reasons.

“There is a strong lobby to simply saying, ‘Well, you just need to give people electric cars and that will solve the climate problem with transport’ — and that’s clearly not true,” said Lee Waters, the deputy minister for climate change in Wales. “We need to reduce tailpipe emissions and carbon as well as reducing the overall number of car journeys.”

Falling short on emissions reductions

Tailpipe emissions — the planet-warming pollutants released as exhaust fumes from gas-powered engines — are the central focus of the EV push. But many experts agree that vehicle electrification alone won’t produce the emissions cuts needed to hit key climate targets on the timeline required.

In Wales, decarbonization initiatives are grounded in the analysis of the Climate Change Committee, the official climate advisers to the United Kingdom’s government. (Wales, a small country of 3 million people, is a constituent nation of the U.K.) In a 2020 report, the committee wrote that 43% of all cars on the road in the U.K. need to be electric by 2030 in order to meet decarbonization goals.

Wales is unlikely to hit this target, according to Lynn Sloman, a sustainable transportation consultant who has worked with the nation’s government and lives in the country part-time. As of September 2022, only 1% of all cars in Wales were EVs or hybrids, and demographic and economic conditions make a rapid transition unlikely. “Wales is quite a rural country. Compared to some other parts of the U.K., it’s somewhat less prosperous, so people tend to keep their cars for longer,” she said.

Cardiff, the capital of Wales. (Photo Credit: Mike Erskine on Unsplash)

As a result, the Welsh government has explored other options for reducing transportation emissions. In 2020, the Climate Change Committee recommended that total car mileage across the U.K. be reduced by 6% by 2030; Wales increased this target to 10% to make up for the projected shortfall of EV penetration. It also set goals for increased use of public transportation, walking, and cycling.

“Achieving those targets, combined with [vehicle] electrification, would get us into a situation where we are achieving our climate commitments,” Sloman said.

Similar conversation in the U.S.

Similar dynamics can be found in the US. In 2020, a team of sustainability researchers at the University of Toronto argued in the journal Nature Climate Change that the United States’s EV-centric approach doesn’t stack up against the goal of preventing global warming beyond 2 degrees Celsius. Their analysis found that transitioning the U.S. passenger vehicle fleet away from gas-powered cars and developing the infrastructure needed to power EVs with clean energy would simply take too long, causing the nation to exceed its carbon budget.

One of the paper’s authors, Daniel Posen, said in a recent email that although EV sales have risen faster than expected since the article was published, his views are largely unchanged. “EVs are better than conventional vehicles and will be a huge help in reducing emissions, [but] it’s still a bad idea to rely on them alone,” he wrote. “Reducing vehicle travel and investing in other options (like public transit) are critical pieces that should not and cannot be overlooked.”

California, a leader in vehicle electrification policy within the U.S., has also determined that EVs alone won’t solve its transportation decarbonization challenges, even when taking into account the state’s ambitious ban on the sale of gas-powered vehicles as of 2035.

“Even with 100% of new car sales being zero-emission in 2035, in 2045 about 30% of vehicles on the road will still have an internal combustion engine,” said Jennifer Gress, who leads the Sustainable Transportation and Communities Division at the California Air Resources Board, the state agency responsible for climate change programs. “Internal combustion engines are going to be around for a while, just given natural turnover.”

Lifecycle and infrastructure emissions

Another problem with decarbonization efforts focused narrowly on tailpipe emissions is that some of the carbon pollution associated with driving happens outside of the car itself.

In 2022, Daniel Posen and his University of Toronto colleagues published an article arguing that life cycle emissions should play a more prominent role in discussions about vehicle electrification. Close attention to the nuances of how and where EVs are made, charged, and eventually disposed of is critical, they said.

The massive urban infrastructure systems that enable driving also generate huge volumes of carbon pollution. According to MIT researchers, the materials used to build U.S. roads and highways produce roughly the same annual emissions as 30 billion miles of gas-powered car travel. Maintaining and operating roads throughout their life span generates additional carbon pollution.

Heavy car use also goes hand in hand with urban sprawl, which damages carbon-sequestering natural landscapes and leads to further car dependency. Sprawl also encourages the development of large, spread-out homes that require more energy to operate than apartment buildings or town houses, as well as vast networks of carbon-intensive infrastructure to connect them to municipal services.

Sprawl in Ontario, Canada. (Image Credit: SimonP via CC BY-SA 3.0)

Automotive infrastructure can also worsen climate impacts within communities. The construction of the system, and the highways in particular, creates heat islands across the country, said Beth Osborne, the director of the D.C.-based advocacy organization Transportation for America. “In areas that are going to see increased water fall, we’ll also be seeing increased runoff.”

Committing to fewer cars

Motivated by these and other concerns, governments across the world have taken steps to reduce car use. Like Wales, countries such as Scotland and New Zealand have committed to lowering car travel (by 20% by 2030 and 2035, respectively). France, Germany, and Lithuania are taking ambitious steps to help more people get around by bike.

The U.S. federal government has also acknowledged the climate benefits of getting more Americans out of their cars, despite the Biden administration’s silver-bullet rhetorical approach to EVs. The recently released report “U.S. National Blueprint for Transportation Decarbonization,” jointly published by four federal agencies, calls for land-use changes and investments in public transportation to make it easier for people to get around without a car, as well as a rethinking of highway funding to prioritize maintaining the road system over expanding it. However, the document makes clear that the federal government is still in the early stages of developing strategies to meet these goals.

States like California, New York, Oregon, and Washington have gone further, putting in place initiatives to densify communities and reduce vehicle use. Other regional governments in the U.S. and elsewhere have developed related initiatives.

Cars stuck in traffic on a highway.Traffic congestion in Richmond, Virginia. Image: Virginia Department of Transportation(Photo by D. Allen Covey, VDOT))

At the city level, recognition of the need to reduce driving is increasingly common. Paris and London have recently emerged as leaders in this space, deploying tactics such as improving public transportation, adding bike lanes, and charging people to drive in the city center during peak times. In the U.S., cities from Lexington, Kentucky, to Buffalo, New York, are experimenting with a variety of ways to get more people out of cars.

According to Todd Litman, who leads the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, an independent transportation consultancy based in British Columbia, such initiatives often make a great deal of sense for a variety of reasons. “Although I don’t oppose vehicle electrification, considerable research indicates that fleet electrification is more costly and takes longer than vehicle travel reduction strategies,” he wrote in an email. “And because electric vehicles typically cost about half as much per vehicle-mile to operate, they are likely to be driven 10-30% more annual miles, which exacerbates traffic problems (congestion, infrastructure costs, crash risk, and non-tailpipe emissions).”

“As a result,” he continued, “many experts recommend that half of transportation emission reduction targets be achieved by vehicle travel reduction strategies.”

A shock to the system in Wales

In Wales, the government has taken significant steps to reduce driving, most prominently by canceling a number of major road-building projects that it deemed incompatible with its climate goals.

Announced earlier this year, the decision to halt the projects was based on an in-depth review of 59 planned construction efforts, conducted by an independent committee led by sustainable transportation expert Lynn Sloman. Lee Waters commissioned the study in 2021, shortly after he was appointed to the newly created Welsh climate change ministry. Waters said that the initiative grew out of the realization that the nation’s transportation emissions (of which almost three-quarters come from cars and light trucks) had fallen by only 6% since 1990. Although vehicles grew significantly more efficient during this period, car travel increased, leaving overall emissions largely unchanged. In comparison, emissions from the waste sector fell by 64% during this time, while those from industry and business fell by 36%.

Allowing vehicle emissions to continue on this same trajectory would cause the nation to fall short of its climate targets, Waters said. “My challenge was to think how transport comes into line and is not given a free pass, which it has been for decades,” he said.

After the road review committee delivered its findings, the government decided that only 15 of the 59 projects examined would progress as planned, although some in this group would be revised in accordance with new guidelines developed by Sloman’s committee. The remaining projects were either halted, replaced by other initiatives, or designated for future assessment.

Waters described the road review initiative as a necessary attempt to shock the system of intertwined professional, financial, political, and cultural forces that have made Wales increasingly car-dependent over time.

“For 70 years in the U.K., our transport policy has been entirely focused on increasing the ease of driving, decreasing journey times, increasing traffic flow and speed,” he said. “And now, we have several generations of transport professionals — and people — who’ve grown up with a common-sense notion that car ownership gives you freedom, it grows the economy, and it helps regenerate deprived areas. And there’s very little evidence behind any of that, but that’s become deeply entrenched in economic formulas used to try investment decisions in transport. And so we have normalized and embedded a bias towards road-building and increasing car ownership.”

Disrupting the cycle of ever-expanding automobile infrastructure will also permit the Welsh government to shift more funding to public transportation, Waters said, reversing a long history of underinvestment that has helped push people away from mass transit and into cars.

However, the government’s decision to cancel some road projects doesn’t mean Wales will never build car infrastructure again, Waters said. Instead, the goal was to ensure that the nation’s transportation investments aligned with its current policies.

“The roads review was quite a nuanced effort to look at the circumstances under which road infrastructure might be sensible and the circumstances under which it jeopardized achievement of the Welsh government’s climate goals,” Sloman said.

In California, state dollars are pegged to reducing car use

In the U.S., California is one of the leading states focusing on what transportation planners refer to as VMT, or vehicle miles traveled. “We’ve had explicit VMT reduction targets in our plans for air quality and climate change for a long time,” said Jennifer Gress of the California Air Resources Board. “It’s not really new.”

The state has developed a number of programs that tie funding either directly or indirectly to vehicle miles traveled reduction, incentivizing regional-level organizations to develop sustainable land use and transportation plans for the communities they serve. One of these, SB 375, was passed by the state senate as far back as 2008.

Other programs, including Regional Early Action Planning [REAP] 2.0 and Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities, weave vehicle miles traveled reduction into attempts to remedy California’s severe housing shortage. Enabling people to meet their needs without driving often comes down to “having the right types of housing in the right locations,” said Gress.

Consider the typical American suburb, in which vast tracts of land are dedicated only to single-family housing. In this environment, walking or cycling to schools, grocery stores, and doctor’s offices isn’t a realistic option for most residents — the distance between home and destination is typically too great, and the streetscapes are generally too hostile, lacking adequate sidewalks, bike lanes, or bus stops. But in denser communities where residences are located close to amenities and the street infrastructure supports multiple forms of mobility, it’s often easier and more pleasant to leave the car at home.

“I like to think about the housing crisis as an opportunity, because we’re really working to spur housing development, and you can do that in a way that addresses climate change,” Gress said.

An initiative known as SB 743 is also raising the profile of vehicle miles traveled reduction across the state. Under this rule, which went into effect in 2020, proposed development projects must be evaluated based on how much driving they will generate, among other factors. This is a major break with standard transportation planning practices that are grounded in a metric known as level of service, or LOS, which assigns letter grades to development proposals based on how likely they are to disrupt traffic flow. A common feature of many zoning codes, LOS requirements incentivize planners, developers, and local governments to focus on moving large volumes of cars quickly through communities, which often results in roadway expansions or pushes new developments to the outskirts of cities.

SB 743 hopes to achieve the reverse, Gress said. “It’s intended to support development with less VMT — make that easier to do — and hopefully reduce pressure to develop in sprawling areas.”

Pragmatic but politically challenging

Attempts to reduce car dependency can be politically fraught, as demonstrated by an improbable global hysteria over the 15-minute city, an urban planning concept proposing that grocery stores, schools, and other amenities be located within a 15-minute walk from homes. Although the term has been around since 2010 (and the compact, multifunctional communities it describes have been the norm for most of human history), over the past few years it has become the subject of outlandish dystopian rumors.

“Driven in part by climate change deniers and backers of the QAnon conspiracy theory, false claims have circulated online, at protests and even in government hearings that 15-minute cities were a precursor to “climate change lockdowns” — urban “prison camps” in which residents’ movements would be surveilled and heavily restricted,” Tiffany Hsu wrote in the New York Times earlier this year.

But vehicle miles traveled reduction attempts can be concerning even to the non-conspiracy-minded. For people who live in auto-centric communities — which, in many parts of the world, is most people — they can trigger understandable fears of lower quality of life and less freedom.

However, advocates say that, when done well, vehicle miles traveled reduction provides more freedom, not less, because it gives people more options for moving around. They also note that reducing the number of vehicles on the road, paired with sensible interventions in the built environment and smart investments in alternative forms of transportation, can deliver critical public health, equity, and quality-of-life benefits.

Chris Bruntlett’s experiences in the Netherlands have borne this out. “We’ve lived here for four and a half years, almost, and still are quite amazed by the way that the mobility systems and the streets have been designed for humans and not automobiles.” he said. “It just makes everybody’s lives better and richer, in the literal and figurative sense, because it gives everyone access to jobs and education and health care without needing the €12,000 to €15,000 a year that comes with the cost of [car] ownership.”

In the U.S. context, Transportation for America’s Beth Osborne said that the fact that the demand for walkable neighborhoods far outstrips the supply — not to mention the fact that many Americans choose to spend their vacations in walkable destinations — shows a clear public appetite for reduced car dependency. “Look on any travel or tourist brochure: They rarely show you the highway or the strip mall or the big parking lot for Walmart,” she said.

But it can be difficult for people in car-centric cities to imagine their own neighborhoods changing so dramatically, although places like Delft have shown that it’s possible.

“If you point out places that have accomplished [reductions in car use], the answer is, ‘Oh, well, that’s because that place is special,’” Osborne said. “And it is — because it made a conscious decision to do something different. It’s not because they’re magical. They’re not wizards. They’re people who made different policy decisions.”

Today, vehicle miles traveled reduction efforts tend to be politically polarizing and are more likely to be attempted by left-leaning governments, said transportation researcher Todd Litman. But they can be highly contentious even in progressive communities.

Given these dynamics, many governments aren’t able or willing to take a public stand against car dependency. Positioning EVs as a silver bullet for decarbonization, while not completely risk-free, is less of a leap. “It is far easier politically to say we’re going to change the technology rather than change travel behavior,” Litman said.

This makes unabashedly anti-car-dependency moves like Wales’s road-building stoppage particularly noteworthy — and, according to Lynn Sloman, particularly deserving of climate advocates’ support.

“Wales might be a small country, but they are examples of what politics can be like at its best, which is real leadership, rather than just doing what you think is going to be easy and not losing votes,” she said.

Source: Yale Climate Connections

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