Better Transportation Choices are Key to Meeting California’s 2030 Climate Goals

January 20, 2017 | 1:49 pm
Don Anair
Deputy Director & Research Director, Clean Transportation

California has set ambitious targets for reducing climate emissions by 2030 – a 40% reduction in emissions compared to 1990 levels.  And transportation is the largest source of emissions in the Golden State  – accounting for nearly half of the state’s emissions when you consider production and refining of oil as well as burning it in our cars, trucks, trains and ships. So no matter how you look at it, meeting the state’s 2030 climate target means dramatically cutting oil use.  How is California going to do that?

The short answer: Giving Californians more – and better – options for moving people and goods.

Opponents of cutting oil use and emissions love talking about all the things you’ll need to give up to meet climate goals. But there’s no way we are going to solve the climate crisis by taking things away from people – that’s a strategy sure to fail right from the start.  The only way to solve this is to give everyone more, and better, mobility options to choose from.  That is exactly what California’s clean transportation policies have been doing for years, and what we need more of.

In 2016, we released a report –  Half the Oil: Pathways  to Reduce Petroleum Use on the West Coast – looking at how California could cut its oil use in half byvehicles-m-ca-oil-graph_0 2030. The analysis illustrated the different strategies available to make deep oil and climate emission reductions in the transportation sector over the next decade or so.  And it’s all about choices – from more efficient vehicles, to cleaner fuels, and better, smarter transportation options.


Here’s a look at how California can meet its 2030 climate targets in the transportation sector.

More Efficient Car and Truck Choices

One of the most effective policies to date for reducing emissions and oil use has been standards for cars and trucks.  California implemented the first-ever greenhouse gas standards for cars and trucks. These, which extend through 2025, compel manufacturers to continue to innovate, and innovate they have. In 2015, more than 10 percent of vehicles sold in the US met or outperformed the emissions requirements for 2020 or later.  The standards have already saved Californians more than an estimated 650 million gallons of fuel amounting to savings of more than $160 per household.* By 2030 they will save as much as 4 billion gallons annually (CA consumed about 15 Billion gallons of gasoline in 2016 for comparison) as more and more vehicles are equipped with fuel savings technology like better transmissions, high-efficiency engines, improved aerodynamics, and other advances.  A recent assessment by EPA, DOT and CARB found that not only are automakers meeting the standards today and can meet 2025 standards largely with conventional gasoline technology, but that the technology can go even further.

So, setting vehicle greenhouse gas standards that go beyond 2025 is one important strategy to reduce transportation emissions, clean our air, and improve public health.  These standards, along with those for heavy-duty vehicles, ensure that consumers not only get more efficient choices – in everything from small sedans to heavy-duty pickups to big-rig tractor trailers – but save money too!

 More Electrification Options

California has the most electric vehicle options in the country.  And not surprisingly California also has the highest sales of EVs. This is great news considering the global warming emissions from driving an EV in California are lower than driving an 85 mile per gallon gasoline vehicle, given low carbon and renewable energy in our state’s electricity supply.

Vehicle electrification is a key strategy for achieving deep reductions by 2030 – which means EVs need to increasingly become the best vehicle choice for more and more consumers. Growing the market for EVs can be achieved through a suite of policies.  Most critical is maintaining and extending the Zero Emission Vehicle program, which ensures manufacturers are continuing to innovate and offer more, better, and lower-cost electric vehicles to Californians.  But the ZEV program alone is not enough to meet our 2030 targets, which will likely require EVs to make up about 30 percent or more of new vehicle sales.  To increase the uptake and sales of electric vehicles requires meeting consumers’ needs, including buildout of charging infrastructure at apartments and condos and along major travel corridors, hydrogen fueling infrastructure, incentives to offset the higher upfront costs of the vehicles at this early stage of the market, and more capable vehicles with faster refueling times and longer ranges.  There are positive signs we are on the right track – like the recently introduced Chevy Bolt with a more than 200-mile all-electric range – but California needs to keep the pedal to the metal.

Electrifying heavy-duty trucks and buses is another part of the transportation sector where we are seeing great innovation happening today.  There are now multiple manufacturers building electric trucks and buses in California and more than 15 public transit agencies are deploying electric buses. These vehicles can cut global warming pollution by 70 percent or more compared to their diesel and natural gas counterparts (see figure).  Delivery trucks are another opportunity for electrification along with the handling equipment at freight facilities from forklifts to off-road trucks.  Ambitious policies to promote heavy-duty vehicle electrification will have the benefit of cutting global warming emissions while reducing tailpipe emissions in freight impacted communities.  California’s recently adopted Sustainable Freight Action Plan, a plan developed jointly by multiple CA state agencies to promote greater freight efficiency and electrification is an encouraging sign, but commitments to electrification should be strengthened to deliver both carbon savings and health benefits to communities.


Comparison of life cycle global warming emissions from transit buses. UCS Delivering Opportunity.

More Clean Fuel Choices

Expanding low-carbon fuel choices is another critical strategy for reducing transportation emissions.   The Low Carbon Fuel Standard is the key policy that is driving cleaner fuel deployment in California.  Between 2011 and 2015, alternative fuel use – from sources like bio- and renewable diesel, electricity, and biomethane –   increased by 31 percent while the average carbon intensity of these fuels declined by 21 percent. But the low carbon fuel standard does not extend beyond 2020. Extending this programs through 2030 with more ambitious targets, and complementing it with continued investments in scaling up production and deploying fueling infrastructure is an important low-carbon transportation strategy. As with greater efficiency and lower oil consumption, the greater use of cleaner fuels also has the benefit of cleaning our air of pollutants that are harmful to our health.

Expanding Transportation Choices

Using cleaner fuels and vehicles is great, but being able to get to your destinations without a car at all is even better.  Pedestrian, bicycling, and public transit investments can make these low-carbon modes of transportation more attractive and more convenient to Californians.

And when you do need a car, sharing a ride in an Uber or Lyft or borrowing an efficient or electric car through a car-sharing program can be a more convenient choice AND a lower emissions option than owning your own.


The Chrysler Portal concept vehicle shown at CES with some self-driving features.

Self-driving cars are a bit of a wild card here – they offer some exciting possibilities. The technology could help increase transportation choices and lower costs of ride-sharing – making transportation more affordable and accessible as well as safer. But it could also increase emissions.  Existing research of self-driving cars shows a wide range of possible futures, from more than a doubling of emissions to a reduction of emissions on the order of 90 percent. While there is a lot of speculation about the readiness and potential impact of self-driving cars, ensuring their deployment results in better safety and the lowest emissions possible must be a priority. California could lead the way by encouraging self-driving technology to be paired with vehicle electrification – especially for use in taxi and ride-sharing services.  But we also need to take precautions to avoid outcomes that could lead to increased sprawl or a proliferation of unoccupied self-driving cars clogging our roads.

On the road to 2030

California’s Air Resources Board is in the process of laying out a path to 2030 through the ARB 2030 Target Scoping Plan process and many of the strategies are the same as those outlined in our Half the Oil analysis.  As the scoping plan is finalized over the next couple of months, we will be looking for commitments in the plan, such as those that were outlined in our December 2016 comments to ARB:

  • Emissions and electric vehicle standards that are consistent with the level of deployment needed to meet the 2030 emissions target
  • Deployment goals for heavy-duty and off-road electrification that are ambitious to ensure carbon reductions and clean air improvements in communities that need it most.
  • Low Carbon Fuel Program targets for 2030 that continue to drive clean fuels innovation and production and
  • Proactive policies to promote climate benefits from self-driving cars and protect against possible increases in emissions.

Setting ambitious targets to reduce global warming pollution, like California’s 2030 goal, is important for focusing our collective attention on important issues and developing the innovative solutions we need to achieve these objectives. My UCS colleagues Laura Wisland and Adrienne Alvord are also writing blogs describing our vision for achieving California’s climate goals by 2030 through a clean electricity grid and a roadmap for deep decarbonization. California’s plan to tackle carbon pollution from the transportation sector needs to be ambitious – and it also needs to ensure that it delivers more clean transportation choices for Californians in order to succeed.

When I think about what our transportation system can look like in 2030, here are the changes that I am looking forward to: Safer bike lanes, sidewalks, and streets for everyone in my family to take short trips; more fuel efficient vehicles to choose from at the dealership that save money at the pump; more electric vehicle options with longer range and better charging  and fueling infrastructure; more car-sharing options providing easier access to the kind of vehicle I need,  when I need it, but avoiding the hassle and cost of owning it myself; better access to transit and shared-ride services when I don’t want to drive; and less traffic and congestion. Not to mention less oil consumption and all the benefits that brings –  from healthier air to breathe, a cleaner environment, and greater economic and national security.


* Savings estimates are based on a previous UCS and NRDC analysis, updated to reflect the most recent census data (US Census Bureau 2016) and latest projections of energy consumption (EIA 2015).