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What We Want: Zero-Carbon Transportation

Major changes in the transportation sector must be front and center in any decarbonization strategy for the United States.


The future of transportation is electric.

You know it. We know it. It looks like the US secretary of transportation, Pete Buttigieg, knows it. And more and more, it seems like the auto industry itself knows it too.

It’s nice to know, and we’re glad we’re all in agreement here – but it’s also a necessary future. One that will require a lot of hard work to achieve. Because to avoid the worst of the climate crisis and keep global temperature rise to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, as targeted in the Paris Agreement, we must reduce fossil fuel emissions rapidly.

That’s why we’re working to make clean transportation options like electric vehicles, electric buses, and rapid transit readily accessible and affordable for everyone by advocating for policies that decarbonize the transportation sector and reduce the emissions literally driving climate change.

And with a new president and a new Congress, we have the chance to make it happen. To think big and act boldly. To urgently confront the climate crisis threatening our future. Starting with how we get from here to there.

But we can’t do it alone. To change everything, we need everyone.

Transportation and Emissions

The transportation sector emits the most greenhouse gases of any sector in the US, accounting for about 28.5 percent of annual climate emissions.

That’s an awful lot of heat-trapping gases going up, up, and away into our atmosphere. But there’s an even more insidious truth to those same emissions down here on the ground – they’re making us sick. Right now.

Fossil fuel-powered vehicles emit harmful air pollutants that cause asthma and other lung ailments. And these health problems are not impacting everyone equally. We know that people of color and low-income families breathe dirtier air than White and well-off Americans, and experience dire health consequences as a result.

It’s not right. It’s not fair. And it must change.

To tackle the largest source of emissions in the United States, we need to transform what the transportation sector looks like. So, how do we do it?

Increased Vehicle Emissions Standards

It may surprise you to learn that under the Trump Administration, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) worked hard to weaken vehicle emissions and fuel economy standards for American cars and trucks. (No? Not surprised?) Just as bad, the agency also threw a wrench in plans from states like California to Rhode Island to set their own ambitious standards for cleaner cars and electric vehicles.

The only winners here were Big Polluters. Everyone else, including you and I, lost big time.

Less efficient cars mean dirtier cars. Cars that dump more and more pollution into the air we breathe. All at a time when long-term exposure to air pollutants has been linked to significantly higher death rates from COVID-19.

It means American families spending more and more of their hard-earned paychecks at the pump just to get to work, take their kids to school, and live their lives.

Of course, it also means more of the emissions driving extreme weather events like powerful hurricanes, devastating floods, and deadly heat waves.

But here’s the thing, and it’s important: Americans are largely united in their desire for cleaner cars.

So let’s give the people what they want – and what the planet needs.

Electric Vehicle Tax Credits

Electric vehicle and electric bus sales, though still a small percentage of overall automotive sales in the US, have grown precipitously in recent years – and the federal electric vehicle tax credit has been a big reason why.

Now, we know what you’re thinking: electric vehicles remain out of reach for a lot of people because of cost. And you’re not wrong… for the time being, anyway.

It is, however, important to remember that those cost have already come down dramatically over the last decade, mostly because the cost of its most expensive component – its lithium-ion battery – has fallen about 89 percent since 2010.

Experts even predict that sometime in the next few years, the cost difference between internal-combustion vehicles and electric vehicles should flatten out entirely, reaching the “crossover point.” This is when electric vehicles will become cheaper than their combustion-engine equivalents – and BloombergNEF forecasts that the US will reach it by 2024.

But we can make them even more affordable for even more people – starting right now – by removing the cap on the federal electric vehicle tax credit.

The current $7,500-per-vehicle tax credit ramps down for manufacturers that reach certain benchmarks in sales, meaning the tax credits are not available to all buyers and offer no incentive for manufacturers to accelerate production.

Why would we punish companies for doing well in the marketplace? Why would we limit the number of people incentivized to buy new cars to get dirty old ones off the road?

Who we’re catering to here seems obvious: Big Polluters. Again. Sensing a trend?

The path to a future where electric vehicles are cheaper than regular cars is clear, and we can get there. So let’s lift the cap and allow all zero-emission vehicles to enjoy the tax credit.

The market will do the rest.

Increased Transit Funding

Public transportation is already a greener option than traveling by car – and expanding its reach comes with numerous benefits. 

Public transit systems allow communities to develop more compactly, eliminating some car trips entirely while making others substantially shorter. Interestingly, this same impact can also make the car trips that do happen a little greener by reducing the number of vehicles on the road and in turn, the amount of time spent stuck in traffic emitting pollution.

It’s a double-whammy of emissions reduction – one that also often makes neighborhoods far more accessible for all, but especially people with disabilities and the elderly.

It goes without saying that we think these new developments – as well as upgrades to existing transit systems – should all be electric, right?

Good thing electric buses are already taking over the market. The reasons why make a lot of sense, too.

Transit agencies spend an enormous amount of money on fuel and maintenance for diesel-fueled buses. But electricity is much cheaper than other fuels, and maintenance costs are lower on electric buses than on internal-combustion vehicles, making them a no-brainer for community officials with their eyes on the bottom line.

Investing in public transit systems is a win-win-win. It’s a win for the livability and health of communities. It’s a win for decisionmakers looking to save money while stimulating their local economies. And it’s a big win for our climate.

What You Can Do

It’s clear that major changes in the transportation sector must be front and center in any decarbonization strategy for the United States. So how can you help create this change?

It starts with becoming part of our Climate Reality Leadership Corps, a network of over 31,000 activists in more than 160 countries, all personally trained by former US Vice President Al Gore and working for just climate solutions in communities big and small around the world.

In 2021, our three training options will be hosted online due to the COVID-19 public health risk. Learn more here.