Cars are an ‘intractable’ source of carbon — expert

Source: Maxine Joselow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, February 19, 2019

When it comes to curbing planet-warming emissions, the transportation sector is a heavier lift than the power sector.

That was a key takeaway of a panel discussion on rising U.S. carbon emissions sponsored by Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment and hosted by the National Press Club.

Experts highlighted the fact that U.S. carbon emissions rose about 3.4 percent in 2018, despite a wave of retirements of coal-fired power plants (Greenwire, Jan. 8).

The bump came after three years of declining emissions and was the second-largest annual increase in more than 20 years, according to the Rhodium Group, an economic research firm.

The culprit, panelists said yesterday, was rising emissions outside the electricity sector, including from cars, trucks and airplanes.

“The most intractable sector of the economy is the transportation sector for emissions,” said Rob Jackson, a professor and senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment.

Jackson noted that coal is on the decline nationwide, with emissions from the fossil fuel dropping about 40 percent over the past 10 years. The trend has been accompanied by a surge in generation from cheap natural gas and renewables like wind and solar.

Yet emissions from transportation continued to rise over the same period. Transportation accounted for 28.7 percent of overall emissions in 2017, just edging out the electric power sector (27.5 percent), according to a draft EPA report released this week (Greenwire, Feb. 12).

A leading source of transportation-sector emissions is the combustion of petroleum in car and truck engines, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data. Recent years have also seen a spike in air travel, which remains a carbon-intensive way of getting around.

“Air traffic is up another few percent,” Jackson said. “And our petroleum use is slowly but steadily going up year after year.”

Sally Benson, co-director of Stanford’s Precourt Institute for Energy and director of the Global Climate and Energy Project, noted that Americans make individual choices about what type of vehicles to drive. It’s a different story with the power sector, where decisions are largely made by utilities and corporations.

The individual choice paradigm has resulted in more polluting vehicles on the nation’s roads, Benson said. Americans continue to opt for SUVs and other gas guzzlers, while electric vehicles account for just over 1 percent of the country’s vehicle market (Climatewire, Sept. 5, 2018).

“The bad news is that Americans, in general, tend to like bigger cars,” Benson said. “They like trucks; they like SUVs. More than 50 percent of light-duty transport is actually met by these much more fuel-intensive vehicles.”

In response to a question from E&E News, Benson added: “There has to be behavioral change. I don’t know how we change people’s choice about what car they buy.”

That remark prompted Sheila Bonini of the World Wildlife Fund to recommend that automakers spur behavioral change by spending more advertising dollars on plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles.

Currently, auto companies spend the vast majority of their advertising money on promoting big vehicles. An exception was Audi AG’s recent Super Bowl ad, which boasted that one-third of the German automaker’s models would be electrified by 2025.

“I think one of the levers of changing behavior is also what they choose to spend their marketing dollars on. And they very much choose to spend their marketing dollars … on SUVs and standard cars, as opposed to electric,” Bonini said.

“If you were bombarded constantly with electric and ‘electric’s the coolest thing,'” she added, “then maybe that would make a difference.”