How Bold Skepticism of “The Impossible” Can Help Drive The Future

, president | March 10, 2015, 9:12 am EDT
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According to Margo Oge, a former high-ranking official of the EPA, the future of climate-friendly transportation is filled with potential: driverless cars that pick you up “on demand,” car batteries that also help power your home, next generation vehicles that get the equivalent of 243 mpg—the equivalent of 10 gallons of gas to get from Los Angeles to New York City. In her new book Driving the Future, Oge shares an inspiring vision of our transportation future, and as the head of the Office of Transportation and Air Quality at the Environmental Protection Agency for more than 18 years, she knows as much as anyone about what this future looks like and how to get there.

Not just talking, but doing

Electric car plugged in

Clean transportation solutions like fuel efficiency, advanced biofuels, and EVs can help cut the transportation sector’s carbon emissions. Photo: Flickr/Aaron Landry

Lots of people talk about what we need to do to fight climate change. Margo Oge is one of the people who’s really getting it done. Among her achievements is the 2012 accord with automakers to double fuel efficiency and cut greenhouse emissions from cars in half by 2025, a deal that will cut carbon pollution by about 300 million tons a year by 2030—the equivalent of taking approximately 41 million cars off the road. An engineer by training, she’s now a vice chair of the board of Deltawing Technologies, which pioneered environmentally-conscious race cars and is now developing high-efficiency passenger cars based on that technology. In October, she also accepted an invitation to join the UCS board of directors.

In Driving the Future, Oge shares her inspiring vision tied tightly to meeting the challenge of climate change and the reality of policymaking, showing us how we’ve made progress in the past and charting a roadmap for the future.

Smart transportation is here

The solutions within our reach include urban planning that encourages electric vehicles, public transit, and walkable neighborhoods within the worlds’ emerging megacities; remarkable efficiency gains in conventional and advanced vehicles; forward-thinking regulations that don’t smother industries but create new markets and spur private sector investment; and lower rates of car ownership that do not limit mobility and convenience. The latter point alone may have potential savings and benefits to U.S. society of $1.3 trillion, according to a report by Morgan Stanley. This total includes $488 billion saved from fewer accidents and another $169 billion in fuel savings from reduced congestion and improved traffic flow.

These solutions align with Union of Concerned Scientists concrete, realistic plan to cut America’s oil use in half over 20 years. The plan includes many of the changes Margo identifies as critical – more efficient cars and trucks, advanced biofuels, and expanded adoption of electric vehicles and more renewable power to run them.

Boldly “skeptical of the impossible”

What I admire most about this book, and Margo’s career in general, is a “healthy skepticism for the impossible.” Virtually every time the EPA proposes new environmental standards, regulated industries insist that meeting the standard is impossible, or at least unduly costly for workers and consumers. While these claims are proven wrong over and over again, as I know from my own prior experience as a state regulator in Massachusetts, they are difficult to resist: there is a natural inclination to side with industry officials as they presumably know the most about cost and technical feasibility, and employ thousands if not millions of workers. But Margo wisely kept her own counsel, viewed these claims with skepticism, and often chose a bolder path.

Now that Margo is out of government, others will need to grab her “boldness baton” and run with it. There is much to be done, including strengthening fuel economy standards for heavy-duty vehicles (which only average on six miles per gallon), resisting pressure to relax fuel economy standards for cars during the upcoming “mid-term” review in 2016-2017, and rapidly deploying the infrastructure we need to make alternative vehicles cost-effective and convenient. Margo’s book both confirms that this can be done, and offers a blueprint for how to do it going forward. UCS will use the lessons from this book, and her wise counsel, to continue making sustained progress.

Posted in: Vehicles

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