Chapter 3 Buildings and Transportation

See index to all the chapters for Putting Out the Planetary Fire


Green buildings
– Banning Gas in new buildings
– Decarbonizing existing buildings
– Reducing Home Energy Use on the Micro Level

– Transportation

– Sprawl increases transportation emissions
– Mass transit
– Electric Vehicles
– Car free Cities and Congestion Pricing
– Other Ways to Reduce the use of cars and other vehicles
– Making Walkable Neighborhoods

While most of the public discussion on transitioning to renewable energy has focused on electricity, buildings and transportation account for a larger share of greenhouse gas emissions. And while emissions from electrical production have decreased over time in the U.S., the carbon footprint from buildings and transportation has continued to increase. (We do want to first reduce energy use in these sectors and then convert whatever is left to use electricity, a process known as beneficial electrification.)

Americans love their cars, and politicians are scared of anything that increases the cost of filling up at the gas pump. The U.S. has a pretty poor railroad and mass transit system, even compared to many developing countries, which further discourages people from getting out of their cars. For decades, many have decried sprawl, which has racial undertones, little has been done to halt it. Aircraft are really bad for the climate[1] and eliminating their carbon footprint is technologically challenging, especially without the high-speed trains used in other industrial countries as an alternative to intercity travel.

While it is relatively straightforward to build new carbon-free buildings, the vast majority of buildings already exist and have decades of usable life. Homes of low-income residents can have major carbon footprints when they are cheaply and poorly built, without sufficient insulation or energy efficient appliances. The cost of an energy retrofit for such homes is typically beyond the means of the occupants, requiring significant taxpayer subsidies. And the fossil fuel industry works hard to ensure that burning fossil fuels are the de facto heating source. Many worry about climate gentrification, as those in poverty are often unable to participate in the transition to a clean energy future.

I built my own passive solar house in 1985 in a rural intentional community based on sustainability principles, with each house required to be energy efficient and incorporate solar technology. Even though I was elected to the local Town Board, ideas like orienting homes to maximize solar gain and not requiring lot lines to be drawn at right angles to the road were not well received. When we told the town we supported clustering homes together to preserve open space, they responded by rezoning our area to double the size of each building lot to two acres to reflect their concept of open space.


Buildings and their construction account for 36% of global energy use and 39% of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions annually, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. In the U.S., residential and commercial buildings account for 40% of energy consumption.[2]

Decarbonizing buildings means eliminating the emissions from existing buildings and new construction. In other chapters, we discuss building decarbonization steps such as electrification combined with 100% renewable energy; energy efficiency; and managing energy loads.

From 1990 to 2015, carbon emissions from commercial and residential buildings in the U.S. increased 7.8% and 20.4%. Emissions have been relatively flat since 2010. The majority were indirect emissions from the electricity used to power buildings. The rest were from on-site combustion of fossil fuels for heating, hot water, and cooking, and from leaks of compounds used in refrigeration and air conditioning.[3]

In addition to their carbon footprint, buildings must become prepared to deal with physical changes from global warming, such as rising sea levels, flooding, more extreme weather conditions on construction sites, and water shortages. They will have to deal with rising temperatures and heat waves.

Buildings have three main ways the use energy: in construction; heating and cooling; and running appliances, machinery, etc. (the latter being most impactful for businesses and industry).

Reducing the carbon footprint of buildings involves electrifying their heating and cooling with renewable energy and improving energy efficiency starting with stronger insulation requirements.

Adopting stricter building codes for new buildings is critical to eliminating their carbon footprint, as states like California have done. Starting in January 2023, most new commercial construction in California will be required to install some solar energy generation and battery storage, along with heat pump technology. The new 2022 building standards mandate heat pumps for water or space heating for single-family homes. [4] In 2020, California required that rooftop solar panels be installed on new single-family homes and low-rise multi-family buildings to achieve “zero-net electricity” status. The standards do allow builders to participate in shared community solar projects.[5]

However, there are far more existing buildings than new ones built each year. In 2012–2013, the median age of a U.S. home and commercial building were 37 years and 32 years, respectively. Slow turnover means that by mid-century much of the existing U.S. building stock will be 70 years old.[6] Advocates in New York City proposed legislation to require energy retrofits whenever buildings are sold or refinanced.

Governments are increasingly offering financial incentives to entice building owners to make needed energy retrofits, but there are significant limits to such approaches. Low-income individuals often live in the most poorly constructed homes and lack the resources to take advantage of subsidies, even when those investments pay for themselves in a short period of time.

Low-income households need the government to upfront the costs of such energy investments. But even when New York State took such an approach in 2010 with the Good Jobs Good New York program which requiring utilities to upfront the costs of any investments certified through an energy audit and then recovering the costs through energy savings on future utility bills, a new Governor, the utilities, banks, and energy regulators worked together to undercut the program.[7]

Many building owners’ inertia or other management needs take preference over energy upgrades. Figuring out how to mandate such energy upgrades is both politically and legally challenging.

Large buildings in New York City are a good example. Buildings above 50,000 square feet account for a significant percentage of the carbon footprint of all buildings. On Earth Day 2009, the city’s billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced an effort to require owners of such buildings to complete energy audits to identify both their energy use and to show how they could save money through energy retrofits. Due to opposition from the owners however, he dropped the requirement that the energy upgrades be done every five years, banking instead that wealthy New Yorkers would voluntarily decide to take action to save money.[8] Unfortunately, few did, as the value of the savings were relatively small and they argued it was not worth the disruption to their tenants.

A decade later the City Council passed a law to require energy upgrades to buildings larger than 25,000 square feet after a prolonged advocacy campaign by community, climate, and labor groups. The requirements would start in 2024 and be phased in fully by 2050[9] – more than 40 years after Mayor Bloomberg started the effort. The building owners continue to lobby city and state lawmakers to weaken the requirement however, such as to allow more carbon offsets (e.g., the purchase of renewable energy credits).[10]

An additional challenge is that the builder, owner and occupier of buildings tend to change over time. The builder may not install the most energy efficient appliances or equipment in order to lower the initial selling price, whereas the buyer or renter will be responsible for paying the energy bill. This tends to favor lower upfront costs despite the net lifetime savings that could be achieved through greater energy efficiency.

Green Buildings

According to the EPA, Green building “encompasses” a structure’s planning, design, construction, operations and end-of-life recycling or renewal, while considering energy, water, indoor environmental quality, materials selection, and location.” Green buildings and communities reduce landfill waste, enable alternative transportation use, and encourage retention and creation of vegetated land areas and roofs.[11]

In 1998, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) piloted LEED, a rating system for environmentally sound buildings and as of 2018, there were 94,000 commercial buildings with LEED certification in 167 countries. (LEED has four levels of certification: Certified, Silver, Gold, and Platinum.) LEED standards have been written into building codes across the country. A 2008 study funded by USGBC claims that LEED-certified buildings use 25 to 30 percent less energy than non-LEED buildings,[12] though others dispute the findings, especially at the lowest level (Certified).[13] A 2014 University of California at Berkeley study found that by constructing buildings to LEED standards, they contributed 50% fewer greenhouse gases than conventionally constructed buildings due to water consumption, 48% fewer GHGs due to solid waste and 5% fewer GHGs due to transportation.”[14]

The United Nations’ A Practical Guide to Climate-resilient Buildings and Communities[15] shows how buildings and community spaces can be constructed to increase resilience, especially in developing countries, where housing is often self-built. To deal with heat waves, structural designs can reduce heat inside buildings. For example, traditional housing designs in Vietnam, such as the optimum orientation of buildings, high-rise rooms, and large openings improve ventilation. Communities can create urban forests and green spaces with trees and other plants that help cool the surrounding environment by offering shade and releasing water through their leaves.

To deal with the cold, insulation in roofs, walls, ceilings, and double-glazed windows minimize heat loss. Trombe walls – heavyweight structures of concrete, stone, or other heavy material – can absorb heat by day and radiate it out by night when it is colder. Water has a high capacity to store heat and can be used in “water walls,” which use drums of water to store heat. Buildings should be oriented to maximize sun exposure, and external surfaces of walls should be painted dark. Green roofs that support plant growth on rooftops provide insulation and reduce the energy demand for cooling during summer and heating during winter. The Municipal Roadmap to Sustainability[16] outlines steps local governments across the U.S. have taken to reduce their carbon footprint.

For instance, the orientation of a building directly affects the amount of solar energy that can be captured, either for photovoltaic electricity generation or for passive solar heating and cooling. South facing solar panels produce about 20% more electricity than east or west facing panels. Communities should consider setback requirements so as not to impede the ability of housing developments to maximize the use of solar power across all buildings.

Plug and process loads refer to electric equipment that is plugged into an outlet, for example plug-in appliances and electronics, computers, printers, etc. These loads are the fastest growing source of electricity usage in both residential and commercial buildings and consume approximately one-third of primary energy in commercial buildings. Plug and process loads are projected to increase from 30% to 35% of total commercial building energy consumption by 2025. Municipalities can create programs that encourage residents and businesses to replace old energy-inefficient electronics with Energy Star models and easy-to-use intelligent power strips and management systems. These completely shut off unused electronics to eliminate wasted energy from phantom loads.

Banning Gas in New Buildings

In 2022, New York State looked to become the first state in the country to enact a statewide ban on natural gas connections in new buildings, following the lead of dozens of local governments that have passed similar policies in the past two years. A version of the ban was included in the Governor’s proposed budget; there was also separate legislation with a shorter time frame. The proposal followed the enactment of such a ban the previous year by New York City. The proposed law would require newly permitted buildings shorter than seven stories to go all-electric by 2024, with taller buildings following in 2027. The ban applies to heating and clothes dryers; water heaters would eventually be included.

However, the proposal was removed from the budget and the subsequent All-Electric Buildings Act failed to gain approval of the legislature.[17] Opposition from the natural gas industry and their unions contributed to its defeat even though it was the one specific proposal promoted by the state’s newly enacted Climate Action Council.

Twenty mostly Republican states have passed laws barring cities and counties from blocking gas hookups. [18]

Opponents argue that such bans undercut gas companies’ efforts to produce more renewable natural gas with methane captured from landfills, farms, and other sources. They also point out that unless the electricity supply is produced from clean sources, gas bans will simply shift emissions rather than reduce them.

Decarbonizing Existing Buildings

In November 2021, the city of Ithaca, NY became the first U.S. community to adopt a goal to decarbonize and electrify all buildings in the city by the end of the decade — a goal that was part of the city’s own Green New Deal. It’s part of an overall plan to make the city carbon neutral by 2030. Ithaca – which has a total annual budget of less than $80 million – raised $100 million from private investors attracted by the relatively risk-free investment with the potential for lots of cashflow. The lending program would provide low- or no-interest loans to residents. For most homeowners, the program would enable them swap out a gas furnace for an electric heat pump, or a gas stove for an electric one – changes that would otherwise require high upfront costs. The program will also train a new green workforce in Ithaca, with a goal of 1,000 new jobs by 2030.[19]

Ithaca’ has a ratio at 1 to 20 for taxpayer versus private investment funding. Ithaca wants to raise another $250 million for further climate projects. Their next initiative is to enable residents to buy used electric vehicles at a low cost with private investors being responsible for owning the battery technology — the biggest part of an EV’s cost — and leasing the battery to drivers.[20]

The recent federal Inflation Reduction Act significantly lowers the cost to homeowners and building owners to electrify their buildings. The law will provide up to $14,000 in rebates for electrical appliances. It can provide up to 50% of the costs of a full-home energy retrofit, or up to 80% of the costs for low- and moderate-income families. It provides a tax credit for new rooftop solar or battery storage of 30% and provides up to $400,000 for owners of apartment buildings to upgrade their systems to help tenants.”[21]

Other Ways for Cities and Towns to Decarbonize

Cities and regions should adopt stricter energy efficiency standards for public buildings; and utilize public building projects to promote broader energy efficiency investments. They can launch pilot projects and leverage green finance to boost energy efficiency investment in buildings and promote innovative business models that can make energy efficiency measures more convenient and impactful. Communities can raise awareness about the benefits of decarbonization among citizens and local businesses, including one-stop-shop advisory services, and promoting clear messages on the benefits of decarbonizing buildings. They can incentivize energy efficiency measures in low-income households, and support capacity building and skills development in the local workforce.[22]

Reducing Home Energy Use on the Micro Level

Heating is the largest energy expense in most homes, accounting for 35 to 50% of annual energy bills in colder parts of the country. Homeowners can save 10% on energy costs by insulating, sealing, and weatherstripping the cracks around windows and doors.[23]

One step individuals can take to reduce their carbon footprint is to use all-electric appliances rather than those that use fossil fuels, such as gas-powered stoves and ovens, natural gas heaters and water heaters, and gas-powered clothes dryers.

The typical household can reduce its energy use and greenhouse gas emissions by 25 to 30% by implementing simple energy efficiency techniques such as switching to light-emitting diode bulbs, installing programmable thermostats and weatherizing windows and doors.[24]

The federal Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy suggests some additional home energy improvements;[25]

  1. Add insulation to the attic, crawl space or basement, and exterior walls in conjunction with air sealing;
  2. Install more energy-efficient windows, doors, and skylights. About 20% of air infiltrates through openings in your windows, doors, and skylights. Storm windows alone can reduce heat loss through windows by 25 to 50%;
  3. Install programmable thermostats that save energy by automatically regulating the building’s temperature. As much as 10% a year can be saved on heating and cooling bills by simply turning thermostats back 10 to 15% for 8 hours;
  4. Seal ducts. Many duct systems are not insulated properly, losing up to 60% of the heated air;
  5. Tune-up or upgrade heating and cooling systems. Typically, 43% of a home utility bill goes to heating and cooling. Combining proper equipment maintenance and upgrades with insulation, air sealing, and thermostat settings can cut energy use for heating and cooling from 20 to 50%.
  6. Install an energy-efficient hot water heater, such as an energy-efficient tank water heater or an on-demand tankless water heater. Water heating is the third largest energy expense, usually about 12% of a utility bill. Also consider using less hot water, turning down the thermostat and insulating water heaters.
  7. Install thermostatic control valves in showers, which shut off the shower once the water turns warm.
  8. Upgrade household appliances and electronics to ENERGY STAR or ENERGY STAR Most Efficient qualified products. Appliances account for about 15% of a household’s energy consumption, with refrigerators, clothes washers, and clothes dryers the biggest users.
  9. Install energy efficient lighting. An average household dedicates 11% of its energy budget to lighting. Using new lighting technologies can reduce lighting energy use in your home by 50 to 75%.


Transportation in the U.S. accounts for about a third of emissions. Aircraft are the third-largest source of greenhouse emissions in the U.S. transportation sector and account for 9% of U.S. transportation. Diesel-engine trains contribute two percent of U.S. transport emissions. Ships release 3% of the world’s CO2 and are a main source of nitrous oxide and black carbon (soot).[26]

Globally, 95% of the world’s use of energy for transportation comes from burning fossil fuels, with transportation responsible for a quarter of all energy-related emissions—and without major changes, transportation’s carbon footprint is expected to increase. Extreme weather events are highly disruptive to transportation and transportation infrastructure and will require major investments to become more climate resilient. However, over a billion people still lack access to an all‑weather road, and only half of the world’s urban population have convenient access to public transportation. Transport is especially costly for many of the world’s least developed countries, particularly those that are landlocked, and for small island developing countries.[27]

Expanding, electrifying, and improving public transportation must be a top priority to reduce emissions, while also increasing access — especially for disadvantaged communities — and improving public safety.

Transportation emissions continue to rise, while tending to rise and fall with the level of economic activity. The U.S. needs to construct an electrified rail and road transportation system nationwide that includes recharging stations for electric vehicles, convenient and affordable intra-urban mass transit, inter-urban rail for intermediate distances, and high-speed rail for long distances.

Rather than improving mass transit or developing alternatives to cars and trucks for transport, most U.S. initiatives are for individually owned electric cars and other vehicles The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) devotes the vast majority of its $50 billion in transportation spending to make cars greener, providing only a few billion in funding for mass transit, biking, walking and trains. There is only $1 billion in grants for clean heavy-duty vehicles like buses and $3 billion in grants to invest in projects that address neighborhood equity, safety and affordable transportation. Transit and bikes did better in the prior bipartisan infrastructure bill, which included $89.9 billion in transit funding over five years along with the largest investment in Amtrak since its creation in 1971.[28]

Prof. Mark Z. Jacobson in No Miracles Needed points out that hydrogen fuel cells that produce electricity makes sense for “larger vehicles such as long-distance, heavy commercial trucks, trains, ships, and airplanes…. The heavier a vehicle and the further it must travel, the more likely a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle is to overtake a battery-electric vehicle in terms of efficiency.”[29]

Ongoing massive subsidies to the auto and fossil fuel industries maintain the dominance of automobile culture. Upgrading streets to accommodate increased traffic generates new traffic, and people take jobs further from their homes or purchase homes further from their jobs. Some people do shift from public transit to private cars due to the trip time in cars being shorter. As the use of public transit decreases, public transit loses funding, becomes less viable, and service deteriorates, encouraging even more people to use their cars. Focusing on electric vehicles as the primary solution tend to make racial and income disparities worse.

Studies show that addressing emissions from transportation solely with electric vehicles would require more than 350 million on-road EVs, half of national electricity demand and excessive amounts of critical materials to be deployed in 2050. Improving average fuel consumption of conventional vehicles, with stringent standards and weight control, would reduce the requirement for alternative technologies, but is unlikely to fully eliminate emissions.[30]

The U.S. should target census tracts with a high level of diesel-pollution with policies to electrify facilities with large volumes of truck traffic. States can adopt Indirect Source Rules, as permitted under the federal Clean Air Act, to boost electrification and improve air quality near ports, warehouses, railyards, and other facilities. Indirect Source Rules provide the cleanest policy mechanism to drive down emissions in these types of facilities.[31]

Sprawl Increases Transportation Emissions

We Conserve PA notes that “urban sprawl is typically described as having some or all of these characteristics: It is low density, automobile dependent, has a leapfrog design, has a seemingly endless outward expansion and consumes significant amounts of natural and man-made resources. Sprawl development is the dominant form of development in America.”

“Sprawl has multiple economic costs, including increased travel costs; decreased economic vitality of urban centers; loss of productive farm and timberland; loss of natural lands that support tourism and wildlife related industries; increased tax burdens due to more expensive road, utility and school construction and maintenance costs; loss of the rural characteristics that make many communities attractive to homebuyers; and increased car use leading to higher air pollution and increased health care costs for diseases like asthma.”[32]

Sprawl — people living further and further from where they work —increases our miles of travel and leads to less dense populations, even less mass transit alternatives, and additional vehicle traffic.

While the desire for better schools and a perceived “better places”
to raise children is a factor, racial issues tied to white flight from urban areas have also had a major impact. Single-family zoning was passed in some cities to ensure racial segregation and many suburban communities still enforce single family residences, although there is increasing pressure to allow homeowners to add apartments to address climate impact and the growing affordable housing crisis.[33]

Sprawl is a problem that many governments in recent decades have said needs to be curtailed. There have been countless committees and published studies so clear proposals exist, [34] but progress has been minimal.

Sprawl is also driven by preferences for low-density residential areas. Other factors include the benefits of newer homes, nearby shopping, better schools, and what is perceived as greater security Pro-sprawl policies include favoring road infrastructure and discouraging vertical construction.

“Cities, counties, and communities can focus on changing land-use planning strategies and guide growth and development toward compact, vertical, walkable neighborhoods and districts. Communities can rethink annexation policies to control how growth is defined, spurring enclaves or cluster developments that preserve and encourage open spaces and agricultural lands that help eliminate food deserts,” said Keith Walzakis of Cushing Terrell.[35]

Other anti-sprawl policies include creating dense neighborhoods with mixed uses, creating a more integrated web of public transit, shared bike and scooter programs, and redesigning neighborhoods to encourage walking.

While most of this discussion has focused on the U.S., sprawl is a worldwide problem, including in developing countries.

City and suburban streets around the world have become less connected over the past four decades, encouraging modes of transportation that are less climate friendly. Woodlands, farms and deserts are being paved over with roads, a change that is difficult to reverse and which has profound consequences for global warming.[36]

A United Nations report on sprawl says “How cities develop in the years to come will determine progress on addressing key environmental, economic and social challenges, including climate change and access to affordable housing.”[37]

Globally, urban sprawl, agriculture practices, deforestation, and climate change are all linked, and could trigger a worldwide food crisis if not checked. Even though cities take up a relatively small amount of land, they can accelerate deforestation or replace land that could be used for agriculture. That limits the ability of natural landscape to capture carbon dioxide. Urban sprawl also requires more transportation, increasing emissions.[38]

The number of landslides worldwide is increasing due to sprawl and climate change.  The first half of 2022 was one of the deadliest on record globally for landslides and the number of fatalities from landslides is close to 4,500 annually. Over the past 50 years, disasters caused by landslides have become ten times more frequent. More than 80% of fatal landslides occur in the tropics, mainly triggered by heavy rain. The rapid pace of urbanization, especially in low- and lower-middle-income nations in tropical regions, is putting more people in the path of danger. Many people arriving in cities end up living in poor or informal settlements on hills and in floodplains. Informal housing practices along with unregulated deforesting, slope cutting and household water drainage, can increase the chance of landslides.[39]

A 2018 report concluded that compact growth, as opposed to urban sprawl, could generate $17 trillion in economic savings globally by 2050. As part of bold climate action overall — including low-carbon growth in cities — compact growth could generate at least $26 trillion in economic benefits by 2030. Unfortunately, once housing and infrastructure have been built, it’s extremely difficult and expensive to change a city’s design. For example, it’s cheaper to extend highways than build rail transportation.[40]

Mass Transit

Moving people from cars into mass transit is an obvious way to reduce emissions from transportation. The U.S. needs to fund expanded mass transit, including light rail and buses. This includes express bus systems (aka bus rapid transit), especially in areas with insufficient density to support local trains or light rail. Improving interstate and intrastate rail systems would also help decarbonize long-distance travel, including reducing the use of aircraft.

The Report Card for America’s Infrastructure by the American Society of Civil Engineers found that “45% of Americans have no access to transit. Much of the existing system is aging, and transit systems often lack sufficient funds to keep their existing systems in good working order. Over a 10-year period across the country, 19% of transit vehicles, and 6% of fixed guideway elements like tracks and tunnels were rated in ‘poor’ condition. Currently, there is a $176 billion transit backlog, a deficit expected to grow to more than $270 billion through 2029. Meanwhile, transit ridership is declining, a trend compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic.”[41]

The rise of cars in the U.S. made them the cornerstone of the American transportation system, contributing to the disinvestment in mass transit such as rail and buses. Mass transit in the U.S. lags behind not only other industrial countries, but even many third world countries. Many parts of the country lack access to reliable bus systems, especially for daily commutes.

In the 1920s, most American city-dwellers took public transportation to work every day, with 17,000 miles of streetcar lines across the country, running through virtually every major American city and many of their suburbs.  Today, just 5% or so of workers commute via public transit, mostly clustered in a few dense cities like New York, Boston, and Chicago. Only a few cities still have extensive streetcar systems – partially as a result of the decision to allow cars to use streetcar tracks, which created gridlock and contributed to their demise.[42]

Light rail transit (LRT) is a form of urban passenger rail transit. While its vehicles are similar to a traditional tram, it operates at a higher capacity and speed, and often on an exclusive right-of-way. In many cities, light rail systems more closely resemble subways and heavy-rail metros. Bus rapid transit (BRT) is an alternative to LRT and many planning studies undertake a comparison of each mode when considering appropriate investments in transit corridor development. BRT has more flexibility as to where they can travel but also need rights of ways to be most efficient.[43]

High-speed rail lines, which travel at speeds of at least 200 miles per hour, exist in over 20 countries. The U.S. unfortunately is not one of them. Our fastest train, Amtrak’s Acela in the Northeast corridor, can reach 150 mph but only averages 66. Starting in 2006, China has built more than 23,500 miles of high-speed rail. Most Chinese cities with as little as 500,000 people have a high-speed rail link. In 2018 alone, China spent $117 billion on railway projects. High-speed shorten travel times, increase productivity and labor mobility, and reduce operating costs, accidents, highway congestion and greenhouse gas emissions as some air and auto travelers switch to rail.[44]

Other steps governments can take to expand mass transit include:

Free or Reduced Fares;

Encourage employer subsidies of transit commuter tickets for employees (perhaps with government grants). Make transit passes tax-deductible to encourage workers and businesses to use public transport and make employee parking a taxable benefit.

Use existing auto infrastructure for transit expansion where possible. Light rail could be established in expressway medians in metropolitan high-density corridors;

Integrate transportation into land use decisions, with consideration for the need for mass transit, and attention to the commuting needs of residents and workers; and,

Nationalize ownership of railroad tracks, as we have done with highways, to improve use, safety and speed.

Electric Vehicles

The number of electric cars on the road in the U.S. has increased much slower than other countries such China and those in Europe (e.g., Norway, Iceland, Sweden).[45] There was a record number of electric vehicles sold in the U.S. in 2021 (about 607,600 light electric vehicles), 83% more than in 2018. Six million seven hundred thousand were sold worldwide. One challenge is that most consumers still view electric cars as more expensive than those using fossil fuels.[46]

In a recent Pew Research Center survey, 7% of U.S. adults said they currently have an electric or hybrid vehicle, and 39% said they were very or somewhat likely to seriously consider buying an electric vehicle. As of 2020, nearly 1.8 million EVs were registered in the U.S., more than three times as many as in 2016. But the U.S. represents only 17% of the world’s 10.2 million EV owners. China has 44% (4.5 million), and Europe has 3.2 million for 31%. California has by far the highest share of EVs of any U.S. state. California is also a U.S. leader in building out charging stations, with about a third of the 42,000 publicly accessible charging stations in the U.S.[47]

After California decided in 2022 to require all new cars be zero emissions by 2035, many of the 17 states with vehicle emission standards tied to California’s rules may follow suit.[48]

More than 40 countries have pledged to phase out internal combustion engine vehicles before 2050. Globally, electric vehicle sales grew 80% in 2021, though this was only 7.2% of global car sales in 2021.[49]

The International Energy Agency (IEA) in September 2022 recommended all new internal combustion engine vehicles be banned by 2035. IEA said electric vehicles need to increase globally from the current one per cent to between 20 and 25 per cent by 2030, with 60 per cent of new cars sold needing to be net-zero. [50]

Electric vehicles in the U.S. are not a new phenomenon. They had a sizeable market share (1/3) in 1900 during the industry’s infancy, with the rest being steam and gasoline. Gas won out, driven by the public’s desire for longer-range vehicles; electric starters replacing hand-cranks; lower gasoline prices; and assembly line mass production. By 1935, electric vehicles largely disappeared in the U.S.[51]

However, while no greenhouse gas emissions come directly from EVs, they run on electricity that is presently still largely produced from fossil fuels in many parts of the world. Energy is also used to manufacture the vehicle – and, in particular, the battery.

Carbon Brief notes that across Europe, EVs contribute considerably lower emissions over their lifetime than conventional internal combustion engine vehicles. But in countries with coal-intensive electricity generation, the benefits of EVs are smaller, with lifetime emissions similar to the most efficient conventional vehicles – such as hybrid-electric models. This will improve as we move towards 100% renewable electricity. There are also large uncertainties around the emissions associated with electric vehicle battery production, with different studies producing widely differing results. As battery prices fall and vehicle manufacturers start including larger batteries with longer driving ranges, battery production emissions are expected to have a larger impact on the climate benefits of electric vehicles.[52]

Around half of the emissions from battery production come from the electricity used in manufacturing and assembling the batteries. Producing batteries in regions with relatively low-carbon electricity or in factories powered by renewable energy, as will be the case for the batteries used in the Tesla Model 3, can substantially reduce battery emissions.

One possible positive trend is that younger people have been less interested in buying cars. Many are attracted to an urban lifestyle where walking, mass transit and bicycling are the preferred transportation, as well as the growing concept of ride sharing. High student debt also discourages the large capital investment required to buy an automobile.[53]

EV Challenges

Challenges facing the expanded use of electric cars include the length of trips on a single charge, the initial price, customer acceptance, charging infrastructure, chip shortages, battery shortages (and cost), and their reliance on rare earth materials (discussed in the renewable energy chapter). The average price for a new EV in the U.S. in February 2022 was $60,054 compared to $45,596 for traditional vehicle.[54]

There are presently far fewer charging stations compared to gas stations and they can be hard to find (although apps can drivers locate them). The cost of installation – from $2,500 for a slower charger to $35,800 for a fast charger – plus miscellaneous fees such as permits and regulations, make charging stations an expensive investment. It can be a challenge to provide charging stations where they people usually park, especially in urban areas with primarily on-street parking.[55] People can charge their cars at home using a regular outlet, but it is much slower (though not a problem if one does it overnight).

Many drivers remain worried about how far they can travel in electric vehicles before their batteries run out. Most presently go about 100 miles on a single charge (although some can more than double that distance and the average continues to increase). Unless you have access to a specialized charging station (which are expensive and in short supply), getting a full charge takes around eight hours.[56] States and the federal government, including the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, are investing in charging station infrastructure, though expansion remains slower than desired.

It costs less to use an electric vehicle compared to a car that runs on gas. On an annual basis, it costs between $300 to $400 to charge an electric vehicle, compared to $4,000 to $2000 for gas for a traditional internal combustion engine vehicle. Electric cars have fewer moving parts, meaning less repairs.[57] Consumer Reports found drivers pay half as much to repair and maintain their vehicles, saving an average of $4,600 over the life of the vehicle compared with a gasoline-powered car.[58]

The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) expanded the federal tax credit for electric vehicles (up to $7,500) while adding one for used EVs ($4,000) – but the devil is in the details. For example, household income must be less than $300,000; and car cost less than $55,000. Many states also offer some form of credit for EVs. The IRA did remove the cap on the number of cars from each manufacturer that qualifies for the credit, while providing a way to take advantage of the full credit regardless of the amount of taxes you owe. The IRA also requires a percentage of the battery’s minerals and manufactured parts to be produced domestically.[59]

Car-free Cities and Congestion Pricing

There is a growing movement, particularly in Europe, to promote car free cities. While it will reduce emissions, it also seeks to end the gridlock that many urban areas experience. The effort gained popular support when many communities made some streets car free during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Paris has announced a ban on most cars driving through the city that will take effect in 2024, especially in major tourist areas. A main objective is to eliminate transit traffic, vehicles that pass through the area without stopping. The goal is to reduce traffic in the heart of Paris by at least half.[60]

According to Wikipedia, “A car free city is a population center that relies primarily on public transport, walking, or cycling for transport within the urban area. Districts where motorized vehicles are prohibited are referred to as car free zones. Car free city models have gained traction due to current issues with congestion and infrastructure and proposed environmental and quality of life benefits. Currently in Asia, Europe and Africa, many cities continued to have car free areas due to inception before the origin of the automobile. Many developing cities in Asia are currently using the proposed model to modernize its infrastructure.”[61]

Congestion pricing seeks to reduce the number of vehicles – and emissions – in high density areas of cities by charging a price or toll to enter the area, particularly at high volume periods. It seeks to shift some rush hour travel to other transportation modes or to off-peak periods. Singapore was the first county to introduce congestion pricing in urban areas in 1975. Some cities that have since adopted it include London, Stockholm, Milan, and Gothenburg, Sweden.[62] New York State approved it for New York City several years ago, but it is still in the federal approval process.[63]

Reduce the Use of Cars and other Vehicles

Below are suggestions that climate groups submitted to the New York State Climate Action Council on ways to reduce vehicle use.

Place a moratorium on highway widening, appropriating funds instead for mass transit and facilities for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Mandate HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle) lanes on freeways, and lower tolls for carpools.

Discourage unnecessary auto use by eliminating free parking in non-residential areas well served by mass transit and establish preferential parking rates for HOV.

Increase Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards to levels which truly challenge automakers to improve the state of the art, using the fuel economy performance of vehicles worldwide for reference. Eliminate the distinction between cars and light trucks (e.g., the E85 loophole and the 8,500-pound exemption).

Enact a fuel-economy-based sales tax that creates a significant incentive for people to select more efficient vehicles, and for automakers to make them available in the U.S.

Lead by example, using government procurement to put more high-efficiency and alternative-fuel vehicles into service.

Electrify truck stops, freight terminals and loading docks. Enact and enforce anti-idling regulations. Idling engines consume nearly a billion gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel and emit ten million tons of carbon dioxide annually (2007 data).

Encourage carpooling programs, telecommuting, and other creative solutions to reduce commuter traffic congestion.

Climate groups also pointed out that transportation planning should follow a prioritization of modes of transport to produce a sustainable transport system, namely:

– Walking and disabled access.

– Cycling.

– Public transport (trains, light rail/trams, buses, and ferries) and rail and water-born freight.

– Light goods vehicles, taxis and low powered motorcycles.

– Private motorized transport (cars & high-powered motorcycles).

– Heavy goods vehicles.

– Aircraft.

To reduce the need to travel, transport planning should support mixed-use developments, for example shopping with housing and small businesses. The development and retention of local facilities must be supported through planning and financial measures.

Making Walkable Neighborhoods

Governments need to promote pedestrians and bicycling by making streets, neighborhoods, and commercial districts more pedestrian and bike friendly.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) advocates for an approach to passenger transport planning called “Avoid, Shift, Improve.” Avoid means reducing the need for transport in the first place. This includes planning new urban areas and redeveloping old ones to be as well-organized as possible, so people will not have to travel far for their working, shopping, schooling, and recreational needs. “Shift” means switching necessary travel to more sustainable and higher-occupancy modes of transport. The “improve” part involves switching bus, rail, and car transport from fossil fuels to electric.[64]

In addition to creating walkable neighborhoods, communities should:

  1. Create and enforce pedestrian-first policies.
  2. Target vehicular speeds to support safe and comfortable pedestrian travel.|
  3. Make communities walkable by improving the first mile/last mile connection. Improving walkability citywide is largely determined by how well walkable spaces interact with other forms of active or sustainable transportation.

Investing in walkable cities, whether through allocating funds to pedestrian walkways or building affordable housing close to downtowns, also attracts diverse populations and creates jobs. Walking costs the city very little, unlike cars and even public transit. According to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, 63% of millennials and 42% of baby boomers would like to live in a place where they don’t need a car. According to the National Association of Realtors, 62% of millennials prefer to live in a walkable community where a car is optional. If cities seem less automobile-dependent, chances are they are more appealing to a range of ages. People also tend to spend more money in walkable cities, stimulating the local economy.[65]

The IPCC in August 2021 identified cycling as a key climate solution. Bicycle use produces zero emissions. “Life-cycle CO₂ emissions drop by 14% per additional cycling trip and by 62% for each avoided car trip” the IPCC concluded. “Switching from a car to a bicycle saves 150g of CO₂ per kilometer, e-cargo bikes cut carbon emissions by 90% compared with diesel vans and swapping the car in cities for walking and cycling even just one day a week can reduce your carbon footprint by about half a ton of CO₂ over a year.”[66]

In the U.S., biking is more popular in the west — especially in dense urban areas, gentrified neighborhoods, and university/college locales — than in the east, except for places such as Chicago, Minneapolis, and New York City. One way to promote bicycling is bike sharing programs. Cycling is more popular in Europe. In Denmark, 16% of all trips — and 25% of trips less than 3 miles—are made by bike. Communities that support bicycling have spaces dedicated to parking bikes rather than cars, bike lanes have a clear presence and are well maintained, and “bicycle superhighways” connect nearby suburbs to city centers.[67]

China has been described as a bike kingdom but as their level of economic development increases, cars have begun to squeeze out bikes.[68]

[1] Aircrafts contribute 3.5% of global emissions.




























[29] No. Miracles Needed, Mark Jacobson, pp. 69-72