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According to preliminary estimates, it seems not even the coronavirus pandemic and the quarantine that resulted from it were enough to unseat transportation as the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. Despite meteoric drops in vehicle miles travelled, transportation-related emissions were still the country’s single biggest driver of climate change in 2020.
A new study by the Rhodium Group reportedly found that cars are the biggest polluters in the sector. Moreover, planes, trains and automobiles accounted for an estimated 31% of total net emissions in 2020. This was despite the fact that the transportation industry experienced the largest drop in total emissions of any sector, though it was not enough to dethrone it as the nation’s top polluter. In 2018, the most-recent year for which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has provided final data, the numbers were at 28%, which hints at the numbers for climate change only getting larger than it’s been in previous years.
The data collected by Rhodium showed that not all modes of transportation contributed equally to the sector’s historic emission declines, given that the decreases in driving were considerably lower than the decreases in flying. At the height of the COVID-19 lockdowns, the demand for jet fuel fell to as low as 32% of 2019 levels. Even when travel demand rose in December for the holidays, the demand barely achieved 65% of those levels.
On the other hand, gasoline demand had already rebounded to about 90% of its pre-pandemic levels by the last month of 2020, and diesel demand was roughly the same as it was in December 2019. Compared to 2019’s annual total, national vehicle miles travelled were only down about 15% in 2020 — that is counting the unprecedented 40% VMT drop-off in April.
Matt Casale, environment campaigns director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, reportedly said: “The fact that transportation is still the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions despite the decreased travel shows just how big the problem is. And we’re already seeing driving pick back up, so if we don’t continue to make progress, this year will just be a blip.”
So why weren’t 2020’s s driving-related emissions even lower when we’re going through an ongoing global pandemic? Experts don’t yet know where exactly Americans were going when they drove last year. According to a recent Gallup poll, roughly 33% of U.S. workers said they had shifted to working completely from home by October, down from 51% in April. This means a huge chunk of commuters weren’t driving to work through most of the calendar year. Moreover, high levels of unemployment cancelled the commutes of another big segment of the workforce altogether. Shopping trips likely took a huge hit, too, as shuttered businesses and public health precautions caused more Americans than ever before to rely on online retail and food delivery over personal, single-occupancy trips to the store.
The U.S. Travel Association did note that trips to national parks and beaches picked up, and some experts have pointed to research that suggests that some telecommuters may actually drive more throughout the day. However, we won’t know with certainty exactly where Americans drove last year until the National Household Travel Survey releases its data for 2020, which won’t happen for at least another three years.