Climate Compass Blog

Experts Debate Emissions and Driving

Transportation experts gathered in Washington last week for the Transportation Research Board’s 89th annual meeting. With over 10,000 participants and 600 sessions, it is hard to draw any crosscutting conclusions from the conference. With an eye on climate change, however, the TRB meeting indicated the transportation community is engaged and ready for reform. One of the conference’s hot topics addressed the potential to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by limiting vehicle miles traveled (VMT). VMT is one of the four major influences on transportation GHG emissions. The others are vehicles, fuels, and the overall efficiency of our transportation system. We need policies to address all four.

At a session entitled “Vehicle Miles Traveled Reduction Targets: Will This Strategy Get the Desired Results?,” the participants debated the effectiveness of VMT targets on reducing GHG emissions. Reducing driving may have been unimaginable in the previous era of urban sprawl and Eisenhower’s interstate highway system, but a confluence of interests in promoting livability and combating climate change has ushered in a new way of thinking about transportation. The idea of limiting VMT is not without its critics, however. Research is ongoing as to how much VMT can really be reduced, on the precise relationship between VMT and GHG emissions, on the costs and benefits of transportation alternatives, and on the distribution of those costs and benefits geographically and by income class.

Perhaps it was the panelists’ connection to the glory days of transportation in the United States or their own economic analyses, but they were mostly skeptical with respect to the efficacy of using VMT targets to reduce GHG emissions. As one speaker put it, “VMT is about technology versus behavior,” meaning lawmakers would use VMT targets to affect behavior due to a lack of confidence in technology.

Another speaker defined VMT targets and the subsequent effects on land-use policy as a “blunt instrument.” They argued VMT reductions would force a reorientation of the population in the United States without necessarily reducing GHG emissions. Furthermore, one panelist claimed VMT targets would be highly regressive.

The lone advocate for VMT targets acknowledged some of these detractions, but strongly pushed for the policy as a “good starting point” towards greater land-use reform. His research showed an economic benefit (i.e., jobs) from spending less on transportation, since people tend to spend that extra money on more labor-intensive products. He also highlighted polls and recent trends indicating that people want to live closer together. Lastly, the co-benefits of reducing VMT including improved safety and reduced congestion make the policy worthwhile even without considering the environmental benefits.

The panelists agreed on some things – for example, that researchers do not fully understand transportation behavior, and that there are substantial co-benefits of reducing VMT. They also agreed that a VMT tax would be preferable to the current Federal gasoline tax as a means of maintaining the surface transportation system, though they disagreed over its effects on GHG emissions. Enacting that policy, however, is politically challenging.

A proposal by Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) to reform fundamentally the current transportation system stalled in 2009, and the legislative prospects in 2010 are unclear. In the absence of comprehensive reauthorizing legislation, action by the Administration – for example, through the Federal budget and U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) rulemaking – will be critical, as will state and local innovation. We could begin to see this needed leadership from the Administration in the form of the President’s budget, which is set for release on February 1st. DOT does have some discretion to improve federal transportation programs under its existing legislative authorities, and the President’s budget could include such reforms. The President could also propose more significant changes, but that would require Congressional approval.

Nick Nigro is an Innovative Solutions Fellow

So What Exactly Is a Disapproval Resolution?

This post also appears on the National Journal Energy & Environment Experts Blog.

With Thursday’s floor statement by Senator Murkowski (R-Alaska) announcing her joint resolution to override EPA’s endangerment finding, we were introduced to a new term to add to our lexicon – a disapproval resolution.  If like me, you only had a vague recollection that Congress had given itself the ability to override any new federal regulation, some quick research was in order.

A Question of American Leadership

If you take a look today at page A16 of today's Wall Street Journal, or inside the pages of the Politico, you will find something remarkable.  Just a day after some pundits declared that energy and climate legislation could be off the agenda after the Massachusetts election, a diverse group of 88 organizations has come together to say the exact opposite.  The message is unambiguous: Democrats, Republicans, and Independents should unite behind bi-partisan, national energy and climate legislation that increases our security, limits emissions, while both preserving and creating jobs.

The Meaning of Massachusetts

There is a great deal of speculation in the press and in the world of punditry about how the Massachusetts election will change the Obama administration’s agenda this year. For the climate issue there are clear implications, but no death knell. 

It is worth pointing out that this election represents only one vote in the Senate. But the real issue is how the moderate, swing senators will react, and whether they pull back on supporting climate action. This election does not change the fact that support from moderate senators in both parties is needed to pass a strong climate-energy bill.

While an economy-wide program to reduce emissions remains the ultimate objective, I believe there are many ways to get there. 

It’s critical that we find ways to promote low-carbon energy and reduce power sector emissions while accelerating the creation of clean energy jobs and promoting economic growth.  I continue to think we have a decent chance of getting meaningful legislation this year that reduces emissions and starts us on a path toward a clean energy future.

Eileen Claussen is President

“10-50” Solutions for a Clean Energy Future

The Pew Center just published a summary of many of the major clean energy policy developments of the past five years (2005 through 2009). This look back gauges progress on clean energy policy since the “10-50” Solution Workshop, sponsored by the Center and the National Commission on Energy Policy (NCEP) in 2004, which convened leading experts to discuss key technologies likely to enable a low-carbon future by mid-century (50 years henceforth) and to identify the critical policies necessary in the next 10 years to enable this long-term vision.