Carbon, the DOT, and you

April 23, 2010
“Reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global climate change is one of the great challenges of our time. As transportation is one of the major contributors to greenhouse gases, the transportation sector must be a big part of the ...

Reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global climate change is one of the great challenges of our time. As transportation is one of the major contributors to greenhouse gases, the transportation sector must be a big part of the solution.” –U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood

With a mighty thunk, the latest “magnum opus” about the perils of climate change, the evils of carbon dioxide, and transportation’s role in the creation of such evil landed upon the desks of unfortunate Congressional staffers this week – one, however, mandated by that very same egislative body those staffers serve.

Clocking in at 605 pages (not quite the epic scale of the recent health care bill, but certainly no lightweight, either) this latest report from the U.S. Department of Transportation – dubbed Transportation’s Role in Reducing U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions, and mandated by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 – lays out a number of strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) from the transportation, sector such as using low-carbon fuels, increasing vehicle fuel economy, improving system efficiency and reducing travel that involves high levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

First, here’s the DOT’s take on the scope of transportation’s GHG problem, based on copious amounts of research (it’s true – I virtually “thumbed through” some of this massive text last night and got a migraine just from the footnotes.)

According to the report, 29% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and 5% of global emissions are due to burning fuel to power U.S. vehicles. Here’s a surprise, though – the majority of these emissions, some 59%, come from light-duty vehicles, followed by freight trucks (19%) and aircraft (12%). Between 1990 and 2007, GHGs from U.S. transportation operations increased 27%, and accounted for almost one-half of the total national increase during that period.

Now – before going any further – let’s look back at those numbers. Transportation as a whole is responsible for just over a quarter of GHG emissions, yet we’re gearing up to make some strategic changes in this sector. Pardon me, but what about the other 71% or so? Seems to me a much larger slice of the GHG pie is being placed on the back burner.

[Then again, take a look at this video from the Vulcan Project, which maps out ALL U.S. carbon emissions from ALL sources. It puts a lot of the GHG debate into some sort of visual context at the very least.]

Another issue: cars and trucks do NOT make up the lion’s share of GHG emissions. In an interesting video interview [which you can watch by clicking here] Kevin Surace, CEO of Serious Materials, noted that 52% of the world’s CO2 emissions come from the construction of buildings, another 12% from making the building materials themselves, and a further 40% from operation said buildings. By contrast, only 9% of global CO2 emissions comes from cars – meaning we could be focusing a lot of time and effort on a very small piece of the GHG puzzle.

[Oh, yeah – one other thing that worries me: PEOPLE produce CO2 as a result of BREATHING. So am I going to be facing “carbon reduction” mandates soon? Hoo boy … what a depressing thought ...]

Another point here – notice how LIGHT duty vehicles are responsible for well over HALF of GHG emissions in the transportation sector, with trucking a very distant second. That would seem to indicate that a larger focus on the GHG reduction effort should fall on cars, pickups, minivans and SUVs.

But of course, those light vehicles are largely owned by John Q. Public – it’s a lot easier to go after those big, bad polluting big rigs. Oh, wait – I forgot: The exhaust from those diesel-powered behemoths everyone likes to bash is actually CLEANER in many cases that the air going into their internal combustion systems. They actually CLEAN the air now. Too bad no one wanted to help defray the cost increase for 2010-compliant equipment – we could’ve really engaged in some serious pollution reduction, while creating manufacturing jobs too.

But I digress.

Espoused by the DOT’s mammoth tome are several strategies geared to chop GHG levels from the transportation sector. Here are several of the big ones:

• More fuel efficient gasoline vehicles could reduce per-vehicle emissions 8% to 30%, hybrid vehicles 26% to 54%, and plug-in hybrids 46% to 75%.

• More direct routing of airline flights using so-called "NextGen" technology and more efficient takeoffs and landings could reduce aviation greenhouse emissions by up to 10% by 2025.

• Reducing the number of vehicle-miles traveled through a combination of strategies, including improved public transportation, coordinated transportation and land use strategies, and greater opportunities for walking and biking – practices emphasized in the Department’s livability initiative – could reduce transportation greenhouse emissions 5% to 17% by 2030.

The report also discusses policy options for implementing these strategies, such as efficiency standards, transportation planning and investment, market-based incentives, research and development, and economy-wide carbon policies.

Just so you know, the American Trucking Association (ATA) came up with its own GHG reduction and fuel saving strategies a couple of years ago to point the DOT towards some low-hanging fruit when it comes to fuel savings and GHG reductions.

While not everyone agrees with the ATA’s pointers, these ideas would help slash fuel consumption by 86 billion gallons and CO2 emissions by 900 million tons from truckers over 10 years. They include:

• Setting engine governors on new trucks to limit speeds to no more than 65 mph and reduce the national speed limit to 65 mph for all vehicles.

• Reduce engine idling

• Increase fuel efficiency by encouraging participation in the U.S. EPA SmartWay Transport Partnership Program.

• Reduce congestion by improving highways, if necessary by raising the fuels tax and dedicating that revenue to fixing key congestion points.

• Use more productive truck combinations.

• Support national fuel economy standards for trucks.

However, let’s point out a few huge caveats as we start looking at reducing GHGs from the transportation sector.

First – and most importantly – while all this might work out super-good on paper, rarely does it go so well in real life. Take fuel economy, for starters; it’s easy to work out on paper how making this or that change results in this or that percentage in fuel efficiency gains with carbon reductions. But truck tires offer a great example of how this doesn’t always work out in the real world.

Goodyear’s Tim Miller explained in a presentation at the National Private Truck Council's 2010 convention this week that tires can demonstrate 20% fuel efficiency gains in the laboratory; however, this then falls to 8% in controlled test track work, shrinking again to 4% when the tires are put into “real world” service.

Why? Because so many factors affect fuel economy, he said – wind, road conditions, the weather, the aerodynamics of the vehicle, tire pressure, how it’s driven – and you simply can’t control all the variables.

Second – and this is something rarely discussed in these high falutin’ reports – the economic impact of such GHG reduction efforts needs to be carefully examined. Environmentalists may pooh-pooh “economic concerns” all they want, but they matter.

Go ahead, increase fuel taxes, encourage people to walk, use mass transit, etc. End result is, people will buy fewer cars. All well and good – just then don’t wring your hands about closing down vehicle manufacturing plants and job losses among unionized workers, and don’t use tax money to prop up said industries when they start to shrink and reduce headcount.

Here’s another point to consider – if you are going to drive more people to mass transit, make sure it WORKS. Washington D.C.’s Metorail subway system offers a prime example here. It’s plagued by delays, meaning it offers inconsistent and unreliable service (I know; I use it). You can’t expect people to use mass transit en masse (so to speak) if it isn’t reliable.

Further, you’ll have to subsidize mass transit more than you think. One reason Metrorail has problems is that it’s been chronically underfunded for years – people scream about the high fares, but those fares barely scratch the surface of its capital needs.

So if we’re going to really favor mass transit, we need to pony up more cash, while demanding consistent results – “if,” I stress, that’s what we want to do.

It’s one of the many often expensive and far-reaching trade-offs we need to consider outside the pure fuel savings/GHG reduction numbers laid out in the DOT’s report.

About the Author

Sean Kilcarr 1 | Senior Editor

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