SELC op-ed: Transforming transportation to stop climate change

Traffic builds up along Route 29 in Charlottesville. Transportation is Virginia’s, and the Southeast’s, largest source of carbon pollution. (© Charles Shoffner)
The following piece by Trip Pollard, Director of SELC’s Land and Community Program, appeared in this week's Richmond Times-Dispatch. An excerpt of the piece is below and you can read the full, published version here.

We can still avoid catastrophic climate change, but we are running out of time. That’s what the world’s leading climate scientists are telling us in the recent report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, ringing alarm bells about the threats a changing climate poses. Hurricanes hammering the Southeast, tornadoes ripping through the Richmond region, and widespread flooding from heavy rain highlight the threat of extreme weather. And Hampton Roads is one of the most vulnerable places in the country to sea level rise.

Substantial changes are needed, and needed quickly, to avoid more frequent and far-reaching climate disasters. Action is required at all levels of government, as well as by individuals, and a primary area where transformative action is needed is transportation.

Transportation is the leading source of carbon pollution driving climate change in Virginia, responsible for roughly 50 percent of state greenhouse gas emissions. Almost 85 billion miles were driven in the commonwealth in 2016, the equivalent of driving even farther than to the sun and back every day. And in addition to the tremendous pollution from burning so much fuel, we are paving over farms, forests, and wetlands that help store carbon to build roads, parking lots, and sprawling development. These patterns cannot continue if we are to avoid the unthinkable economic, health, community, and environmental impacts of catastrophic climate change. We must immediately pursue a cleaner transportation future.

Virginia is off to a strong start with recent steps to reduce transportation pollution. But so far, we have mainly signaled that we’d like to do more. Now it’s time to actually do more — much more.”

—Trip Pollard, Director of SELC's Land and Community Program

Unfortunately, the federal government is heading in the wrong direction. Among other things, the Trump administration has proposed rolling back clean car standards. Freezing fuel economy and emission standards for vehicles is estimated to produce roughly 2 billion tons of additional greenhouse gas pollution.

In contrast, Gov. Ralph Northam and his administration recently unveiled several steps to reduce transportation pollution. Last month, the administration announced Virginia would join the Transportation and Climate Initiative, a consortium of states collaborating on initiatives to cut carbon pollution. In addition, Virginia is awarding a $14 million contract to develop a statewide public electric vehicle-charging network, using funds from a settlement to mitigate damage from Volkswagen diesel engines designed to cheat emissions testing. Further, the Northam administration unveiled a new state energy plan earlier this month that places greater emphasis on cleaner vehicles and calls for adoption of low-emission and zero-emission vehicle programs.

These are significant, positive steps that help put Virginia at the top of the list of southern states taking climate change seriously.

That’s something to applaud. Now comes the hard part. Not only do these steps need to be implemented quickly and wisely, but much more is needed.

If we are serious about combating climate change, the governor and the General Assembly will have to do far more to advance cleaner forms of transportation, avoid destructive projects, and promote cleaner vehicles.

Virginia is off to a strong start with recent steps to reduce transportation pollution. But so far, we have mainly signaled that we’d like to do more. Now it’s time to actually do more — much more.

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