Transportation is now America’s biggest climate hurdle

Since 1980, the biggest contributor to climate change from the United States was always electricity generation.

No more.

As of February of this year, CO2 emissions from transportation now composes a larger share of our carbon footprint than any other sector. And while this is partially due to large decreases in carbon emissions from electricity generation, it also demonstrates just how difficult is to reduce the footprint of the transportation sector, and how often this challenge gets overlooked.

Back in December, during the COP21 proceedings in Paris, my colleague Landon Hall lamented how little attention was being paid on how to clean up the emissions from our modes of transport. In his post he pointed out that:

As the EPA notes, “Almost all (95%) of the world’s transportation energy comes from petroleum-based fuels, largely gasoline and diesel.” Regardless of your views on climate change, it’s indisputable that our over-reliance on oil for transportation has had devastating consequences for the planet, as well as health. Combustion of gasoline and diesel in vehicles produces vast amounts of CO2, methane and other gases, but also particulates and nitrogen oxides that contribute to smog and worsen health problems like asthma and heart disease.

If we’re going to get serious about mitigating the effects of climate change, we need to get serious about not just cleaning up our electrical grid, but cleaning up our transportation sector as well. And considering that transportation is also responsible for more than half of toxic criteria pollutant emissions in the United States, working toward reducing transportation emissions is a no-brainer on multiple fronts.

One way forward is with electric vehicles. But since they currently make up less than 1 percent of vehicles on the road and new vehicle sales, adoption is not close to where it needs to be to make a significant impact on transport emissions. Sales need to advance quickly, somehow.

Another way forward — in tandem with more electric vehicles — is using more high-octane fuels like ethanol and methanol that can run in efficient, high-compression engines. According to MIT, this strategy could reduce our CO2 emissions by 35 million tons a year.

Whether it’s electric vehicles, high-octane fuels, or something else entirely, one thing is clear:  As long as we are only using gasoline to fuel our cars and trucks, we won’t reach our climate or air quality goals.

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