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Starting with President Biden’s executive order to replace the federal government’s massive vehicle fleet with U.S. made electric vehicles, which was quickly followed by a ground-shifting pledge by General Motors to sell electric vehicles (EVs) only by 2035, the country is experiencing a flurry of concrete actions aimed at reducing emissions across various industries and sectors. But electrification alone won’t suffice to help the U.S. meet its climate goals.
As Bloomberg noted in a recent article, the electric vehicles and charging stations that Biden has signaled will be taking center stage in his transportation climate strategy are simply not nearly enough to solve the problem we face. Transportation contributes the largest share of carbon emissions in the country, and electrification is a critical requisite to a carbon-free future — but not the sole remedy. In fact, in order to achieve climate targets, the U.S. must significantly reduce its use of cars altogether.
On the bright side, so far it seems like our new leadership in the White House and the Department of Transportation are willing to make much-needed changes to expand transit, biking and walking options, and to bring people closer to the places they need to go. Because if we continue to design our communities and transportation systems to require more driving alone, even if it’s in an electric car, it makes decarbonization far harder.
Even under the most ambitious EV adoption scenarios, we must still reduce driving.Per an analysis done by the Rocky Mountain Institute, the U.S. transportation sector needs to reduce carbon emissions 43% by 2030 in order to align with 1.5oC climate goals, which require that we put 70 million EVs on the road and reduce per-capita vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by 20% in the next nine years. And while 2020 saw a Covid-induced drop in VMT, it wasn’t enough to unseat transportation as the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. Moreover, SUV sales continue to climb, and so too will VMT.
But in order to reduce car dependency and make decarbonization far easier, it’s crucial to enhance transit, biking and walking — as well as building more housing closer to jobs, schools, groceries, and other necessities. Unlike electrification, these strategies could be implemented without having to rely on the American car buyer, the compliance of reluctant automakers, or the long timeframe required to overhaul the national fleet. Not to mention they’d also bring meaningful co-benefits, including saving people money on transportation, improving safety and public health, and reducing barriers to economic mobility to those who can’t afford to drive.
California is a prime example of why more nuanced solutions are needed. At the same time that the state is seeking sales of all new passenger vehicles to be zero-emission by 2035, the state legislature continues to prevent much-needed housing reform that would put more housing closer to the things people need. Trying to solve emissions with electric vehicles alone will leave current inequities in place, with millions of people struggling to afford their car payments, living in places where they can’t even safely walk across the street, or relying on underfunded transit systems with sporadic and infrequent service.