Transportation is the greatest source of greenhouse gases in the United States. Why are all the 2020 candidates so scared to say it?
Few objects symbolize America’s unique place in the world better than the automobile. Residents of the United States drive more than 37 miles per day, nearly twice as much as the average Swede or Norwegian. America has 1.16 cars for every licensed driver and spends roughly $534 per person each year building and maintaining its road network. Three out of four U.S. workers drive to work alone; fewer than 1 in 20 walk or bicycle.
America’s unique enthusiasm for the automobile has become one of the greatest challenges to solving climate change. Transportation is now the greatest source of greenhouse gases in the United States. And while utility companies are phasing out coal in favor of renewable energy, the auto industry is moving in the opposite direction. In March, the International Energy Agency reported that America’s oil use was rising more quickly than any other nation. In 2016, the average American drove 1,300 more miles than they did in 1992. Nearly every advance in fuel economy has been wiped out by more driving, bigger cars — or deliberate sabotage by the Trump administration.
And yet, no prominent Democrats have proposed policies to reverse this trend. The 2020 presidential candidates have put forward ambitious targets for weaning power plants off of fossil fuels, closing federal lands to drilling and dramatically increasing subsidies to electric vehicles. None of them, however, has acknowledged the urgent necessity for America to kick its driving habit.
“It’s difficult to imagine addressing the climate crisis in any meaningful way without taking on automobiles,” said Clayton Nall, a political science researcher at Stanford University who specializes in infrastructure spending. “It’s not enough to convert vehicles to electric. And even if it was, it’s not likely to happen on a timeline that will address the carbon emissions problem. It’s a real blind spot.”
The absence of meaningful plans to reduce car use is conspicuous. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projections show that the United States needs to electrify its vehicle fleet and significantly reduce driving by 2030 to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius. In 2018, the California Air Resources Board estimated that even a tenfold increase in electric vehicle sales would still require residents to drive 25 percent fewer miles each year to reach the state’s emissions targets.
It’s difficult to imagine addressing the climate crisis in any meaningful way without taking on automobiles.Clayton Nall, researcher, Stanford University
Both reports suggest taking drastic action to reduce car use. This could include raising gas taxes, increasing investment in public transit or implementing “decongestion pricing,” a toll for drivers to access heavily trafficked urban neighborhoods. Other countries have begun removing parking spots and closing down urban highways in major cities. Some havebanned cars from entering their urban cores altogether. Last year, the EU committed to a 35 percent reduction in car emissions by 2030.
So far, these ambitious commitments haven’t been taken up by the Democratic Party. In July, the $287 billion highway bill passed out of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee with the support of Green New Deal co-sponsor Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.).
The transportation spending package, the largest in history, will primarily fund the construction of new roads. Numerous studies have shown that building new roads does not reduce congestion and simply encourages Americans to drive. Despite a $420 billion maintenance backlog, the bill dedicates just $6 billion to helping states fix existing roads.
“Even if you look at the most ambitious figures in the Democratic Party, there’s less ambition to reduce driving than there needs to be,” said Nall. “It’s one of the only issues where they’re taking the safe route.”