Solar Tribune

Climate Change Policy: Transportation Policies

The transportation sector has long had a target on its back when it comes to global carbon emissions and the ability to potentially see public policy action in a real way. From the tailpipe emissions of cars and trucks to the carbon-intensive nature of aviation, transportation has consistently accounted for over one-quarter of global carbon emissions, though new technological solutions like high-speed trains or electric vehicles are really starting to pick up momentum. But because of how large and complex the transportation sector is, more than simply technological improvements are needed and government support for such possibilities is seen as necessary.

Among the most prominent options for transportation climate policies are the following:


Vehicle Performance Standards

vehicle emissions standards pollution climate change transportation policy

What is it: Vehicle performance standards are requirements for the level of carbon emissions allowed to be emitted by cars and trucks when they are driven, typically expressed in terms of miles per gallon, or MPG, (since a gallon of gasoline burned will emit a given amount of emissions, so greater ability to drive for the same fuel will reduce overall emissions). As hybrid and electric vehicles have become more evasive, governing bodies have added in a measure of miles per gallon equivalent (MPGe) that accounts for the emissions required to generate the electricity that powers these vehicles.

Is it enacted anywhere: The United States has implemented vehicle performance standards since 1975, under the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, with the goal of reducing the reliance of foreign fossil fuels after the uncertainty from the Arab Oil Embargo in the 1970s. These standards have been updated many times, with some states also adapting more stringent vehicle performance standards prescribed by California.

In Favor of Vehicle Performance Standards:

“Under the standards, the country’s cars, pickup trucks, SUVs and minivans are getting much cleaner. EPA’s online counter shows that new vehicles sold since model year 2012 have already avoided the emissions of more than 242 million tons of carbon pollution. The 2012-2025 standards are the biggest federal climate-protection program in place. If fully implemented, cleaner vehicles sold as a result of the standards will cut pollution that warms the planet by nearly 6 billion tons.

By reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the standards slow the warming of our planet, and they protect our health by reducing the number of high-smog days that would come with a hotter world.”- Natural Resources Defense Council

Against Vehicle Performance Standards

“Economists have long been skeptical of fuel economy standards because they are an inefficient means of reducing fuel consumption and emissions. The majority of U.S. consumers demonstrably prefer larger, more powerful vehicles, such as pickups and SUVs. But vehicle manufacturers continue to produce large numbers of small vehicles, which have a higher fuel economy, in order to comply with fuel economy standards. As a result, manufacturers and dealers are forced to discount the prices of new cars, undermining their overall profitability.”- Julian Morris, senior fellow at Reason Foundation and executive director of the International Center for Law and Economics

Read more:

Federal Vehicle Standards – Center for Climate and Energy Solutions

The Effect of Standards for New Vehicle Fuel Economy and GHG Emissions on U.S. Consumers – Resources Magazine

Federal Clean Car Standards – Environmental Defense Fund


Vehicle Fuel Fees

gas station vehicle fuel fee climate change policy

What is it: Because the most harmful part of transportation to the climate is the emissions associated with burning fuel, taxes on gasoline are a common tool to make driving more expensive and thus incentivize people to find alternative forms of transportation and drive personal vehicles less. While gasoline taxes have been implemented as revenue-raising measures for transportation infrastructure longer than they’ve been considered a climate policy, they are an increasingly useful way to encourage transportation emission reductions.

Is it enacted anywhere: According to the Tax Foundation, every state in the nation has a gasoline tax, ranging from as low as 15 cents per gallon in Alaska to 59 cents per gallon in Pennsylvania.

In Favor of Vehicle Fuel Fees:

“A gas tax could be one important element of an integrated energy policy.”- Alan Mullally, former CEO of Ford

Against Vehicle Fuel Fees:

“Tax hikes have a negative impact on economic growth. As discussed, higher gas taxes mean higher gas prices which reduce the discretionary income of millions of Americans.  Reductions in discretionary income often correspond with diminished economic growth. In fact, analysts at Goldman Sachs predict lower gas prices could add as much as half a percentage point to GDP growth this year.”- Emma Boone, Americans for Tax Reform

Read more:

Fuel Taxes: An Important Instrument for Climate Policy – University of Gothenburg

Aborted Fuel Tax Initiative in France: Its Ramifications for Green Growth – Inter Press Service

Vehicle Climate Fee – City of Boulder Colorado


Electric Vehicle Policies

electric vehicle public policy climate change

What is it: Electric vehicle policies can encompass a variety of different strategies, from incentives for purchasing new electric cars to supporting the installation of charging infrastructure to converting municipal fleets to be powered by electricity and much more, but the goal is the same: transforming the base of vehicles on U.S. roads to be powered by electricity (already less carbon-intensive than internal combustion engines and getting better as the grid decarbonizes) rather than gasoline.

Is it enacted anywhere: The U.S. government included provisions in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 to provide tax credits for the purchase of electric vehicles, while at least 47 different states, according to the Hybrid & Electric Vehicle Technology Collaboration Programme, offer regulations promoting electric cars.

In Favor of Electric Vehicle Policies:

“By far, the rubric assigns the highest weight to vehicle purchase incentives, which could include grants, rebates or tax credits, along with exemptions from sales tax, registration and licensing fees.”- National Association of State Energy Officials

Against Electric Vehicle Policies:

“To justify these staggering costs, advocates of the credit claim that electric cars as “critical to lowering our emissions and limiting climate change.” But the numbers tell a different story. Research by the Manhattan Institute found that EVs will reduce energy-related U.S. carbon dioxide emissions by less than 1% by 2050. “That reduction will have no measurable impact on world climate—and thus the economic value of CO2 emissions reductions associated with [electric vehicles] is effectively zero,” according to the study, which also found that the spread of EVs would actually increase other harmful pollutants like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides.”- Steve Pociask, President of the American Consumer Institute

Read more:

Comparing U.S. and Chinese Electric Vehicle Policies – Environmental and Energy Study Institute

Model State & Local Policies to Accelerate Electric Vehicle Adoption – Sierra Club and Plug In America

Electric Vehicle State Policy Resources – Georgetown Climate Center


Urban Mobility Policies

urban mobility climate change policy bike lane

What is it: Urban mobility is the collection of how people move around a given city in efficient and effective manners, including driving, public transit, walking, and biking. Locally, a focus on climate-friendly urban mobility policy will shift the number of trips taken via carbon-emitting measures like personal vehicles towards less carbon-intensive (public transit) or carbon neutral (walking and biking) means. Examples of climate-focused urban mobility policies include funding for public transportation systems, installation of bike lanes, and a focus on minimizing sprawl while maximizing affordable housing close to a city center.

Is it enacted anywhere: Any city or region has its own form of urban mobility policy, with varying degrees of a climate focus turned to it. Examples of clean urban mobility policy include the European Union’s aim to free cities of conventionally fueled cars by 2050extensive networks of bicycle lanes installed in Oslo, and congestion charges in Stockholm.

In Favor of Urban Mobility Policies:

“As the developing world rapidly urbanizes, the demands on transport systems also grow often at a faster pace than the population. Given the above tendency, an effective and coordinated approach to urban transport requires that sound policies be put into place. Such policies enunciate the direction that a government wants to take; they lay the basic framework for downstream planning as well as project identification and prioritization.”- World Bank Group

“If we’re going to be serious about tackling climate change, we really need to create a modern, clean, safe, and affordable transportation system. We’re almost 100% dependent on fossil fuels to move people and goods across the country and the world. For us in the Northeast, there’s a new program called the Transportation and Climate Initiative—the TCI region, were it a single country, would represent the world’s third-largest economy. Such regional initiatives provide more bang for your buck in terms of emissions reductions compared with local or state policies alone, and this initiative will fund and invest in what states need most for clean transportation options, including electric vehicles and charging stations, better public transit, and healthier communities that take advantage of walking and biking.” – Jeff Marks, Maine Director & Senior Policy Advocate at Acadia Center

Against Urban Mobility Policies:

Here’s what the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Walker told the paper’s editorial writers Tuesday about why he opposed transit improvements in the county he purportedly leads:

 “…Walker said he would like to grow the local economy enough so lower-income people don’t have to rely on transit and could instead afford to buy cars if they chose.”- Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker

Read more:

Formulating an Urban Transport Policy: Choosing between Options – World Bank

European Urban Mobility – Policy Context – European Union

Urban mobility at a tipping point – McKinsey & Company


This page is a part of the Solar Tribune Series on how individuals and policymakers can tackle climate change. Click here to see the overview of this series and see the other categories of action.

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