Making the drastic reduction in greenhouse gas pollution that scientists have determined is necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change will require major changes in how we generate and use electricity, design and build homes and offices, and manufacture and move products. It will also require fundamental changes in how we get around every day. Quite simply, we need less polluting cars and we need to drive them less. This means that advocates for solving climate change (which should be all of us by now) must take a hard look at what we drive, how we drive, and alternatives to driving. Fortunately, environmental law and policy is moving in this direction, with several exciting developments in the past week.
The American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES), authored by House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Henry Waxman (D-CA) and House Energy and Environment Subcommittee Chair Ed Markey (D-MA), would achieve a significant reduction in the total U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases responsible for global warming. The legislation requires a minimum 17% reduction in greenhouse gases below 2005 levels by 2020, essentially cutting 1.2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2020 compared to inaction (there are many other provisions in ACES to reduce greenhouse gas pollution – see NRDC’s analysis for more details). This reduction is comparable to taking 500 million cars off the road, which is twice the number of U.S. cars on the road today. (Tip to Joe Romm of Climate Progress for all of these numbers and references).
Obviously we cannot simply get rid of all cars – nor would doing so alone even meet the necessary greenhouse gas pollution reductions – but using cars less and making cars less polluting must be part of the equation. President Obama and Congressional leaders know this, and in the past week have announced several initiatives to make this change. Late last week, Senate leaders proposed legislation that would reduce automobile use and carbon emissions and boost public transit and rail service. The Senate legislation requires annual reductions in per capita motor vehicle miles traveled (VMT) to reduce total U.S. surface transportation-generated CO2 emissions by 40 percent by 2030.
Making these significant cuts in per capita VMT (which means how much we drive) will require major changes in transportation funding at the federal, state, and local levels. Instead of spending money on more highways and parking, resources must be invested in modern, reliable transit. Americans use transit less than any other comparable country, according to a recent National Geographic Society report. However, as Kaid Benfield, Director of NRDC’s Smart Growth Program points out, Americans surveyed reported that the biggest obstacle to their use of public transportation was lack of availability. So we don’t use transit because it’s not readily available, which undermines support for greater investments in transit to make in more available. Kudos to the Senate leaders for proposing legislation to end this chicken-and-egg cycle.
President Obama is also taking strong leadership to reduce our dependence on cars and make our cars more efficient. He made his bold vision for high speed rail a centerpiece of the Recovery Act. High speed rail would revitalize the Midwest, linking our cities and making the collective region far more economically competitive while reducing our dependence on dirty fossil fuels. And today, President Obama is expected to announce that he has reached a deal with auto companies and states to significantly raise mileage standards, up to 36 miles per gallon for new passenger vehicles and light trucks by 2016.
But we can’t simply wait for direction from Washington DC on this issue. Local governments must consider reducing car use in all transportation and land use decisions. California has led the way, with innovative enforcement of the California Environmental Quality Act by the Attorney General and environmental organizations such as the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute. In several recent cases, California cities have either agreed or been forced in court to study and mitigate the impact of land use and transportation plans and investments in vehicle use and CO2 emissions.
In Michigan, the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center recently raised concerns about the City of Ann Arbor’s decision to spend about $50 million on a huge new parking structure. Ann Arbor had adopted a resolution to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 20% from 2000 levels by 2015. Meeting this goal will require reducing vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in the city, but Ann Arbor’s State of Our Environment Report acknowledges that total VMT have been steadily growing over the last several years. The Great Lakes Environmental Law Center is concerned that the proposed new parking garage will increase VMT and make it difficult for Ann Arbor to achieve its greenhouse gas emission reductions. For more details, see the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center letter submitted on behalf of NRDC, Sierra Club, and local residents and media coverage from the Ann Arbor Chronicle and the Ann Arbor News. Ann Arbor has a reputation for environmental leadership and should take this opportunity to invest public money in the direction of the future, not the past.