To Meet Climate Goals, Think Outside the Electric Car - CityLab


The Biden administration is plugging EV adoption to help the U.S. meet its climate goals, but electrification alone won’t do the job: We need to reduce vehicle use, period.

When President Biden recommitted the U.S. to the Paris Climate Accord on his first day in office, he set into motion what will undoubtedly be an ambitious climate strategy. Already, with his executive order to replace the federal government’s massive vehicle fleet with U.S.-made electric vehicles — quickly followed by a ground-shifting pledge by General Motors to sell EVs only by 2035 — we are witnessing a flurry of actions aimed at reducing emissions across various industries and sectors. After four years of backtracking, the U.S. is on the cusp of a meaningful policy response to climate change.

Unfortunately, the electric vehicles and charging stations that Biden has signaled will take center stage in his transportation climate strategy are not nearly enough to solve the problem we face. Transportation contributes the largest (and still growing) share of carbon emissions in the U.S., and electrification is a critical requisite to a carbon-free future. But in order to achieve climate targets, the U.S. must significantly reduce its use of cars, period.


The good news is, with new leadership in the White House and the Department of Transportation, we can make much-needed changes to expand transit, biking and walking options, and to bring people closer to the places they need to go.


The truth is very simple: If we continue to design our communities and transportation systems to require more driving alone, even if it’s in an electric car, it makes decarbonization far harder. According to Rocky Mountain Institute’s analysis, the U.S. transportation sector needs to reduce carbon emissions 43% by 2030 in order to align with 1.5oC climate goals — requiring that we put 70 million EVs on the road and reduce per-capita vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by 20% in the next nine years. Even under the most ambitious EV adoption scenarios, we must still reduce driving. And while 2020 saw a Covid-induced drop in VMT, SUV sales continue to climb, and so too will VMT.


Enhancing transit, biking and walking — as well as building more housing closer to jobs, schools, groceries and other necessities — will reduce car dependency and make decarbonization far easier. And, unlike electrification, these strategies could be implemented without having to rely on the whims of the American car buyer, the compliance of reluctant automakers or the long timeframe required to overhaul the national fleet. They also bring meaningful co-benefits, like saving people money on transportation, improving safety and public health, and reducing barriers to economic mobility to those who can’t afford to drive.


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