New Federal Data Show Transportation Sector Now the Largest Source of Carbon Pollution in the United States, First Time in Nearly 40 Years

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Highlights Need for U.S. DOT to Move Forward with New Rules to Help Limit Transportation Emissions


New federal data from the U.S. Energy and Information Administration (EIA) show that the U.S. transportation sector has produced more carbon pollution than any other sector of the economy over the last 12 months, including the electric power, industrial, residential, and commercial sectors. The results mark the first time that carbon emissions from the transportation sector have exceeded emissions from each of the other sectors since 1979.

“These recent findings are an important wake-up call that highlights the need for urgent action to combat global warming-causing pollution from transportation sources,” said John Olivieri, National Campaign Director for 21st Century Transportation at the United States Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG). “This is the first time in nearly 40 years that this has happened,” he added.

The new data present both good and bad news. Carbon pollution from the electric power sector has decreased some in recent years as policymakers have focused more on reducing emissions from that sector. However, the data also show that little such progress is being made in the transportation sector. In fact, transportation sector emissions are increasing.

Based on the moving 12-month total for April 2016 (latest available data), which sums monthly carbon pollution from May 2015 to April 2016, the transportation sector produced the greatest amount of carbon pollution when compared with each of the other sectors of the economy. This marks the third consecutive month where this has been the case, with the moving 12-month totals for March 2016 and February 2016 showing the same trend. Like the 12-month total for April 2016, the 12-month totals for March and February are similarly based on the sum total of monthly carbon pollution for the preceding 12 months (i.e. April 2015 – March 2016 and March 2015 – February 2016). This continuity suggests that the trend may be here to stay.

“It is increasingly clear that there is no path to combating climate change that doesn’t adequately address carbon pollution and other greenhouse gas emissions from transportation,” said Olivieri. “Over reliance on single-occupant vehicle travel and a failure to prioritize non-driving modes of transportation like transit, biking, and pedestrian alternatives is having a profound impact on the health of our planet and the health of our citizens,” he added. A study from researchers at NASA and Duke University found that 120,000 premature deaths could be prevented by 2030 if we reduce carbon pollution from transportation. Meanwhile, MIT has calculated that as many as 53,000 lives are lost prematurely each year as a result of overall pollution from transportation sources.

Federal policymakers are now considering moving forward with key steps that could help combat the problem. The U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT) is currently considering new rules that may require localities to track, measure, and reduce carbon pollution from transportation sources.

Pursuant to the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21), U.S. DOT is required to issue a series of performance standards to provide greater accountability over our national transportation system and to ensure that local action is consistent with key national priorities. The last of these rules, those governing air pollution and congestion, are currently open for public comment and U.S. DOT is expected to release the final version of the rule by the end of the year. 

“U.S. DOT should be applauded for considering adding a carbon pollution performance standard to the current draft rule on air quality and congestion,” said Olivieri. “However, as the new data make clear, consideration alone is not enough. U.S. DOT must ensure that the final version of the congestion and air quality rule includes a requirement that localities track, measure, and reduce carbon pollution from transportation, as well as publicly report on their progress.”

Recent research also demonstrates that in addition to including a carbon performance standard in new federal regulations, there remain other important steps that states can take now to reduce carbon pollution from transportation.

A report from Frontier Group, “A New Way Forward: Envisioning a Transportation System without Carbon Pollution” showed that there are a variety of tools already available today that could make a zero-carbon transportation system possible. The tools outlined in the report include electrification of vehicles, increased use of shared-mobility services (car-sharing, bike-sharing, and ride-sharing), more and better public transportation, greater transit-oriented development, safe and walkable neighborhoods, and smart pricing for roads and parking, to name a few.

“While carbon pollution from transportation is a major problem, the good news is that the tools and technology we need to transition to a carbon-free transportation system already exist,” said Olivieri.  “What’s needed now is the political will at the federal, state, and local levels to take meaningful action,” he added.

You can find the recent EIA data here.

You can read Frontier Group’s report, “A New Way Forward: Envisioning A Transportation System without Carbon Pollution” here.

Graph of data available upon request.