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Study: Transportation sector now top carbon polluter

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, released by the U.S. Energy and Information Administration, 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.

“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 as policymakers have focused more on reducing emissions from that sector.

However, the data also show that little progress is being made in the transportation sector.

In fact, transportation sector emissions are increasing.


“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,” Olivieri said in a statement. “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."

A study from researchers at NASA and Duke University found that 120,000 premature deaths could be prevented by 2030 with a reduction in 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 considering moving forward with key steps that could help combat the problem. The U.S. Department of Transportation 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 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,” Olivieri said. “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 steps that states can take to reduce carbon pollution from transportation.

A report from Frontier Group, “A New Way Forward: Envisioning a Transportation System without Carbon Pollution” showed there are a variety of tools available that could make a zero-carbon transportation system possible. Such tools 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.

“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,” Olivieri said.  “What’s needed now is the political will at the federal, state, and local levels to take meaningful action."

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