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The Carbon Reduction Program can reduce transportation emissions. Here’s how.

The Carbon Reduction Program can reduce transportation emissions. Here’s how.
By Jeffrey Ang-Olson and Sam Pournazeri
Mar 30, 2023

Reducing emissions from the transportation industry is imperative for the United States to reach its climate goals. Transportation is currently the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to approximately 30% of the nation's overall emissions. The transportation sector is projected to lead to a further rise in emissions in the future, contributing to climate change and detrimental impacts on public health.

The transportation sector is poised to receive historic levels of funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) for sustainable fuel infrastructure, EV charging, rebates, clean ports, and investments along the EV and battery supply chains, as well as for transit, rail, and active transportation. The funding will support the growth of a cleaner, more sustainable transportation network, creating new jobs, and driving economic growth while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The Carbon Reduction Program

With funding through the BIL, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has launched the Carbon Reduction Program, which will provide $6.4 billion in formula funding to states and localities over five years to develop carbon reduction strategies and address the climate crisis. The program will fund a range of projects to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from: on-road highway sources; infrastructure to support the electrification of freight and personal vehicles; Bus Rapid Transit corridors; and micro-mobility initiatives.

As part of this program, states must develop carbon reduction strategies with metropolitan planning organizations to identify projects tailored to their state's needs. Eligible projects include alternative fuel vehicles, zero emission vehicles and facilities, truck stop electrification, public transportation, and electric bike projects.

Here are three essential priorities that state transportation departments should consider integrating into their strategies: better choices, better cars, and better infrastructure.

1. Better choices

The transportation system in the U.S. has long been centered around personal vehicles, with a focus on building roads and highways to accommodate them. However, this car-centric approach has led to several negative consequences, including high levels of greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, and traffic congestion.

The remote work revolution has offered an enticing alternative for many commuters, and transportation planners can capitalize on this trend. But people still need low-carbon options when they choose to travel. Moving toward lower carbon mobility options can address many of the traditional transportation and environmental challenges engrained in the current transportation model. Reducing reliance on personal vehicles and promoting sustainable transportation modes such as public transit, biking, walking, and electrified options like electric vehicles (EVs) can help reduce emissions and improve air quality. This shift also has other benefits, such as reducing traffic congestion, improving public health, and enhancing equity by ensuring access to transportation options for all members of the community.

To achieve this transition to lower carbon mobility, transportation planners and policymakers can prioritize investment in infrastructure and policies that support sustainable transportation modes. This includes expanding public transit options, building bike lanes and sidewalks, and promoting policies that incentivize low-carbon transportation, such as congestion pricing and parking policies. By shifting away from a car-centric transportation system and towards lower carbon mobility options, the U.S. can reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and build a more sustainable transportation system that benefits everyone.

2. Better cars

Even with significant investment in the alternative modes of transportation, cars are still expected to remain the major mode of transportation in the U.S. That’s why switching to low-carbon transportation options like EVs is critical for reducing carbon emissions. This transition will require consumer adoption but also the charging infrastructure needed to support these new vehicles. Without a robust network of charging stations, drivers may experience "range anxiety"—the fear of not having enough battery charge to reach your destination—and be hesitant to purchase electric vehicles.

As we move towards a low-carbon future, it is important to include heavy-duty vehicles in decarbonization plans, since they account for almost one-third of the total GHG emissions from on-road transportation. However, building a zero-emission infrastructure network for these vehicles presents unique challenges. With their larger size, higher power demands, and longer range requirements, it's not as simple as just adding a few charging stations. But it's not an impossible task. By designing a comprehensive, reliable, and accessible network of zero-emission infrastructure, we can enable heavy-duty vehicles to transition to low-carbon transportation without sacrificing performance or efficiency.

A transition to EVs alone can dramatically reduce GHGs, but an electric grid powered primarily by clean energy is required to unlock the full carbon-reducing potential of EVs.

3. Better infrastructure

As U.S. states and metropolitan planning organizations strive towards a decarbonized future, it's important to understand that this new infrastructure will create a significant carbon footprint of its own. Every step of the process, from extracting raw materials to construction and maintenance, emits greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. In fact, the lifecycle of emissions from this new infrastructure is expected to be one of the most significant drivers of greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector. Given this reality, it's essential that transportation planners explore and implement various strategies to effectively manage these emissions.

Climate-friendly alternatives to traditional concrete, improved paving techniques, and better preventative maintenance are just a few of the options available to minimize the carbon footprint of this new infrastructure. By prioritizing these measures and considering the full lifecycle of emissions, state transportation departments can make significant progress towards a cleaner, more sustainable future for transportation. For example, transportation planners can leverage tools and technology to estimate the energy and GHG emissions on their transportation infrastructure, like the infrastructure carbon estimator ICF built for the FHWA.

Strategies for success

To truly decarbonize the transportation sector, it's imperative that state transportation departments prioritize strategies for shifting to low-carbon modes of travel, improving vehicle efficiency, leveraging low-carbon fuels, and investing in sustainable infrastructure assets. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to achieving this goal. Every state must tailor its decarbonization strategy to meet its unique needs and challenges. By adopting innovative and customized approaches, transportation departments can effectively address the emissions challenges in their respective states.

Transportation departments should also consider strategies that ensure equity and human health as additional elements of decarbonization. Integrating these components into a decarbonization strategy can help transportation planners access federal funding and ultimately achieve their climate and transportation goals simultaneously: a win-win.

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Meet the authors
  1. Jeffrey Ang-Olson, Vice President, Transportation

    Jeffrey is an expert in climate change, economics, and transportation with over 20 years of experience. View bio

  2. Sam Pournazeri, Director, Clean Transportation and Energy

    Sam is a nationally recognized transportation and energy expert with more than 10 years of experience in air quality and climate change planning and policy development. View bio