Driving Action On Climate Change: Transportation Matters

F. Noel Perry
Founder of Next 10, an independent, nonpartisan organization that educates, engages, and empowers Californians to improve the state’s future. Next 10 funds research by leading experts on complex state issues.

As lawmakers in Sacramento consider a flurry of climate change and clean energy measures in these last few weeks of the legislative session, it is worth remembering that the road to a clean-energy future runs through the largest contributor to California’s greenhouse gas emissions: the transportation sector.

Bay Area residents are already doing their part. They lead the nation in car-free commuting and electric vehicles per capita, and are considering ballot initiatives to fund road and transit improvements and cut the traffic congestion that exacerbates transportation-related carbon pollution.

Broadening out to a statewide perspective, a new analysis, “Achieving California’s Greenhouse Gas Goals: A Focus on Transportation,” finds that the Golden State’s landmark transportation policies are technologically feasible, cost-effective, and on track to help the state achieve emission reduction goals. But the road ahead is not free of obstacles or choices. 

The study, commissioned by Next 10 and authored by the Policy Institute for Energy, Environment and the Economy of the University of California, Davis, looks at how transportation might play into cutting emissions through 2050. It examines a suite of California’s policies, including the Low Carbon Fuel Standard, the Zero Emission Vehicle regulation, the “Pavley” vehicle emissions standards, the state’s smart growth law (SB 375) and the expansion of the AB 32 cap-and-trade program to include transportation.

One theme that emerged: the importance of designing robust, lasting policies with long-term reduction goals in mind. Entrepreneurs, energy companies, and investors say they have an easier time spending money on research, development, and scaling up clean energy solutions when long-term policies are in place. Community leaders tell a similar story, saying they can plan communities and transportation systems better when they receive clear signals from the state with respect to growth.

Understanding the challenges of developing the transportation sector of tomorrow—as well as how current policies interact and how future policies can build upon early successes—is critical.

In addition to measures currently in place, the new analysis concludes that market mechanisms could send additional signals to consumers and encourage lower emissions, and suggests pricing fuels based on their carbon intensity as one possible option to consider. Other options could include congestion pricing on roads, and/or “feebates” that add to the price of gas-guzzlers while giving money back to people who buy low-pollution vehicles.

There is no one silver bullet that is going to magically slash emissions and transform California into a clean-energy economy. But building block by building block, California is showing the rest of the nation how to cut greenhouse gas emissions and clean the air while growing and strengthening the economy. From zero-emission vehicles to cleaner fuels to transit options to smarter community planning, California is building a bridge to a better transportation future. And that means a healthier, more sustainable, more economically robust state for generations to come.

 F. Noel Perry is a businessman and founder of the nonpartisan nonprofit research organization Next 10.

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