New study evaluates pathways for reducing N.C. transportation pollution

Transportation is the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions nationwide and is set to become number one in North Carolina.

RTI International, a nonprofit research institute, released a report evaluating the impact of four strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector in North Carolina, where transportation is set to become the leading source of those emissions.

The report, “Evolving Transportation in North Carolina: An Analysis of Emission Reduction Pathways for North Carolina’s Transportation Sector,” was created in part to help analyze options for achieving Governor Roy Cooper’s goal to reduce total GHG emissions in North Carolina to 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. The report was made possible with funding from SELC and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“Our goal was to evaluate what can be done in the near future to reduce transportation emissions while simultaneously creating a more equitable and accessible transportation system throughout the state,” says Kyle Clark-Sutton, research economist at RTI and project lead.

The study looked at a portfolio of options to help North Carolina meet its greenhouse gas reductions goal that included Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) reductions, increased transit usage, electrification of passenger vehicles, and vehicle efficiency standards. Additionally, the report recommends potential policies and programs that other states have explored to meet these targets.

The study found that reducing vehicles miles traveled (VMT) by passenger cars by 10% would result in emissions reductions of 3.7 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2025, which is roughly equivalent to taking 750,000 cars off the road for a year. Other strategies yielded emissions reductions ranging from 65,000 to 1.6 million tons of CO2.

“North Carolina’s goal for transportation is currently limited to a proposal to increase the number of electric vehicles on the road to 80,000 by 2025,” says SELC Senior Attorney Kym Hunter. “Our study found that this goal is too small, as North Carolina is set to achieve this number of EVs under a business-as-usual model. North Carolina needs to embrace other policies.”

Continues Hunter, “Electrifying our transportation system is an important strategy to mitigate climate change and clean up the air we breathe, but it cannot stand alone. We also need to look at strategies to reduce driving, increase transit use, and clean up the gas-powered vehicles on the road for North Carolina to achieve its greenhouse gas reduction goals.”

Electrifying our transportation system is an important strategy to mitigate climate change and clean up the air we breathe, but it cannot stand alone. We also need to look at strategies to reduce driving, increase transit use, and clean up the gas-powered vehicles on the road for North Carolina to achieve its greenhouse gas reduction goals.”

—Senior Attorney Kym Hunter

For each of the four strategies below, RTI estimated the resulting emissions reductions by 2025, examined policies to kickstart and accelerate reductions, and considered how changes in transportation technology and policy can create a more equitable, accessible transportation system in the state.

  1. Vehicle Miles Traveled
  2. Transit Adoption – Shift one percent of light duty vehicles travel to public transit by 2025.
  3. Battery Electric Vehicle Adoption – Accelerate battery electric vehicle adoption to 20 percent of light duty vehicle sales by 2025.
  4. Fuel Economy – Achieve an average fuel economy of 54.5 miles per gallon for all new light duty vehicle sales in North Carolina by 2025.

Since 2005, greenhouse gas emissions in North Carolina have declined by 22 percent, but emissions are projected to remain relatively stable through 2030 without more aggressive action in the near term to accelerate progress. In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that we have just twelve years to get our emissions under control to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

“This report makes clear that there is no silver bullet for curbing harmful climate pollution from our transportation sector,” says NRDC Senior Attorney Luis Martinez. “Achieving significant emissions reductions will require a suite of solutions that holistically rethinks transportation in North Carolina – from putting more electric vehicles on our roads to expanding public transit and making our communities more livable and equitable.”

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