The Biden Opportunity: Clean Transportation for All

November 7, 2020 | 12:08 pm
Jonna Hamilton
Director of Policy, Clean Transportation Program

The dust has settled and we know that a Biden presidency awaits us in January. Now the real work begins.

We’re relieved that this work will happen with a president who knows that climate change is happening and that we need to take bold action to stave off the worst impacts. Someone who has touted the need for electric vehicles on the campaign trail, particularly citing the need for 500,000 charging stations. This is all great, but ensuring that the Biden administration delivers on its promises and takes even bolder action is going to require us all to roll up our sleeves, get to work, and keep the pressure on.

We all have hopes and dreams for what this next administration will do. And a big part of our job—as advocates, as policy nerds, as scientists, as people with a platform—is to make sure that the incoming administration has all the information it needs to make great decisions right out of the gate and get this country moving towards a future of lower carbon emissions, better protections for public health, a strong economy, and robust domestic manufacturing that supports good jobs.

My little island in the middle of all of this activity is focused on decarbonizing the transportation sector. Only it’s not so tiny, since transportation is now the largest emitter of carbon pollution in the US, pulling ahead of electricity production a few years ago.

Not only that, the transportation sector pollutes heavily, spewing particulate matter and other toxic pollution that has disproportionate impacts on the communities who live near crowded highways and interstates, trucking corridors, freight centers, ports, and distribution centers where they sort all those Amazon boxes to get them to you in a couple of days.

This air pollution literally kills people, and we have found that people of color bear the brunt of the impacts. We have also learned that those who are exposed to higher levels of air pollution also face higher risks from COVID-19. Talk about a double whammy—air pollution puts you at risk for a number of diseases and shortens life expectancy AND it makes you more susceptible to dying from COVID. We need to fix this.

As part of our nation’s recovery from the pandemic, we fully expect the Biden administration to work with Congress early in 2021 to craft a bill that will provide additional relief to people and businesses affected by COVID-19, likely coupled with a stimulus bill that will help re-energize the economy. Funding for our public transit systems must be an essential part of that. Public transportation is crucial for so many essential workers, yet transit systems across the country are facing deep budget deficits due to reduced ridership, increased cleaning costs, and other impacts of the pandemic. The House has already passed legislation that would provide $32 billion to transit agencies, but it still needs to get through the Senate as well.

We also need to ensure that any stimulus package is designed to put people back to work in ways that have additional benefits for reducing emissions from transportation while also supporting good jobs and American manufacturing. We sent a letter to Congress with 79 other organizations laying out our vision—now it’s time to move toward that future.

We have a plan

There is a way to reduce air pollution and carbon emissions from transportation. Stop using petroleum as the primary fuel to move people and things around. Petroleum (a.k.a. gasoline or diesel) is a dirty fuel, full of chemicals that cause negative health impacts when refined and burned, and a major contributor to global warming.  If we switch to low- or zero-carbon sources of energy to run our transportation system, we glean significant benefits across the board.

Our goal here in the Clean Transportation Team at UCS is to transform our transportation system from a gasoline and diesel-inhaling (and pollution exhaling) sector and into a web of mobility options that works for everyone while simultaneously protecting our climate and cleaning up the air we breathe.

To do this, we need to invest in cleaner fuels, increased transit and mobility opportunities, electric cars and trucks, and ensure that the production of these things, and related infrastructure investments, results in good paying domestic jobs. We need bold steps to transform the transportation sector.

President-elect Biden should set a goal that will result in significant electrification of the vehicle fleet in the short term and put the country us on a path to having all vehicles on the road be plug-in electric or fuel cell vehicles by 2050. This includes more than just personal electric vehicles; we also can and must electrify transit and school buses, delivery trucks, and even tractor trailers sooner than you think.

Setting a strong target early in the administration will send an important message to industry as well as ensure that government agencies are forging ahead. The impact this will have across government will be significant. The Department of Transportation can prioritize grant funding or solicit projects that significantly increase investment in electrification. The Department of Energy can align their research priorities so that work on battery chemistry, battery recycling, and interoperability is prioritized, not to mention ensuring that loans are going to companies who are actively retooling their facilities to boost their electric vehicle (EV) production. And the Environmental Protection Agency can get back to actually regulating and ensuring that their work results in cleaner air and water and protects frontline and environmental justice communities.

We are also preparing for a new set of car and light truck fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas emission standards—as you may recall, the Trump administration rolled back the Obama (and Biden!) standards earlier this year, and as a result automakers can get away with making only a tiny improvement in vehicle efficiency through 2026, negatively impacting your options as a consumer in the dealer showroom.

We will be calling on the Biden administration to start work immediately on the next round of standards and to ensure that these standards push the automakers to make much more efficient vehicles AND bring more electric vehicles to the market.

President-elect Biden has said numerous times from the campaign trail that he wants to deploy half a million charging stations. That’s a great idea. Though it may take even more than that over time, that’s definitely a down payment toward more people seeing that an EV can meet their needs. We will work with both the administration and Congress to ensure that charging stations are deployed in places that will be convenient for people who live in apartments and don’t have access to dedicated off-street parking, along highway travel corridors, and are available in ALL communities.

Electrification alone is not a silver bullet, however. Investments in transit and transit-oriented development are key, especially for urban areas. While we increase access to transit, we also need to decarbonize it and are working to increase funding for electric transit buses. Improving access to a multitude of clean transportation options for communities, together with a transition to vehicle electrification, will ensure we are reducing pollution while increasing mobility and the economic opportunities it enables.

We still have opposition to overcome

Transitioning to a low-carbon and low-pollution transportation future will not happen naturally or overnight. Even with a President-elect who believes in science and wants to decarbonize our economy while providing relief from COVID and bolstering good paying jobs and manufacturing, we still face a massive hurdle—industry opposition to the future we want and need.

The oil and gas industry has enjoyed unfettered access to the White House for almost four years now and has played an outsized role in US politics far longer than that. They are not going to go quietly into the night. They will continue to oppose progress, try to divide us, and spread lies and disinformation about the transportation solutions that are becoming more and more viable.

They have already started an astroturf campaign against EVs, and we can expect this to ramp up steadily as EVs gain more market share and become a more obvious choice for more consumers. We need to be ready for this, ready to stand up and say no more—you had your days (years, decades) in the sun, now it’s time to stop spewing your toxic pollution and let us breathe clean air.It’s time for the Biden administration to put the fossil fuel industry in its place and hold them accountable for past harms. And if the industry wants to stay relevant in a clean transportation future, they need to be part of the solution.

That auto industry also has a long history of trying to block progress. Recent reporting shows that, like the oil industry,  the auto industry knew a half century ago that carbon dioxide causes global warming and did nothing to change their business trajectory. In lots of ways, this is nothing new—automakers have a long history of opposing health and safety regulations (seat belts, air bags, pollution controls….). What is new, however, is that there is currently a split in the auto industry, with some companies siding with California regulators and acknowledging that they can meet the Obama-Biden standards, and others standing with the Trump administration as they undid the original standards. It will be interesting to see how this dynamic plays out over the next few years.

As part of that, we hope that the auto industry will change its tune and start working to increase their electric vehicle options and actually try to sell them through their dealer network, and we stand ready to call them on their hypocrisy if they continue on their current path of working to sell EVs in Europe and China and refusing to do so here.

Overall, we are excited for the next president to take the oath of office. We have high hopes yet clearly understand that we have a lot of work to do to put our country back together. In the weeks and months ahead, we will be calling on you, our allies, to help us powerfully make the case to the administration and demand clean transportation for all.