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Last year carbon emissions fell by 2.1 percent in the United States. At least that number reflects a minus sign because just a year ago the trend was moving in the opposite direction.

It's interesting how we got there, though. A new study by the Rhodium Group says last year’s carbon emissions decline “was due almost entirely to a drop in coal consumption. Coal-fired power generation fell by a record 18 percent year-on-year to its lowest level since 1975.”

“Unfortunately, far less progress was made in other sectors of the economy,” the study reports. “Transportation emissions remained relatively flat. Emissions from buildings, industry and other parts of the economy rose, though less than in 2018.

Rhodium said the U.S. is “at risk” of missing its Copenhagen Accord target of a 17 percent reduction by the end of this year and “a long way off” from the goal of a 26 to 28 percent reduction by 2025. Targets that were pledged under the Paris Agreement. Then that would be the same agreement that the Trump administration officially withdrew from (technically the withdrawal won’t happen for another year beginning in November 2020).

The Paris Agreement was a grand idea, that world governments could come together and set ambitious climate goals, reducing the amount of carbon emissions and set an overall goal to limit the global temperature increase to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius. The stretch goal was 1.5 degrees.

It’s one thing to reach consensus and close a power plant. Or even to fix a building and make it more carbon neutral. But it’s a much more complicated challenge to change the behavior of millions of people. That is what has to happen in transportation.

The United Nations reports that fossil fuels make up 80 percent of global energy demand and are the source for some two-thirds of global CO2 emissions. As the UN sustainability project says: “The need to reduce emission does not preclude the use of fossil fuels, but it does require a significant change in direction; business as usual is not consistent with decreasing emissions.”

The primary goal of any transportation system is simple: Move one person from point A to point B. But what if that basic framework was changed? What if the framework instead was about mitigating climate change first and then moving people? How would that change point A to point B?

Transportation and climate change is a “big problem” that requires action now, says Olof Persson, former chief executive officer of the Volvo Group. He was co-chair of a UN advisory group on transportation. “We have solutions. That technology is coming very fast and we need to implement those solutions. I definitely believe that the need for transportation is going to increase in the future and we need to make sure that we utilize technology in the best possible way to make sure that we can do that growth in transport.”

In the United States driving to and from work, to the stores, shipping goods, even flying accounts for 29 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. Seventy percent of that number is car and truck traffic. These numbers are big enough so that even a small change by a lot of people could significantly reduce greenhouse gases.

The New York Times calculated that if people drove 10 percent less, or about 1,300 miles per person, that would cut annual CO2 emissions by 110 million metric tons. That is roughly the same number as shutting down about 28 coal-fired power plants for a year.

But that’s not happening. Instead, Brookings Institute reports, “we’re continuing to drive a lot, with vehicle miles traveled increasing each year. The country’s drivers now log 3.2 trillion vehicle miles traveled annually, up from 2.9 trillion in 2010 and more than double the 1.5 trillion miles in 1980.” And the per capita numbers are not much better. “We’re each driving almost 9,900 miles annually, up from a recent low of 9,400 miles in 2013 and 6,700 miles in 1981.” The numbers slowed after the recession and then that trend reversed just as soon as the economy recovered.

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Stuck in the past

Our transportation infrastructure is stuck in the past. Consider Phoenix.

Last month Arizona opened a new freeway. The cost of the Loop 202 was $1.7 billion and it added 22 miles of freeway to give motorists an alternative to Interstate 10 through downtown Phoenix. The state projects daily traffic of 117,000 vehicles in the first year and up to 190,000 vehicles are forecasted to travel the route daily by 2035.

When the route was planned the Gila River Indian Community filed suit to block the highway expansion. Gov. Steven Roe Lewis said in 2015 that the South Mountain area is one of the tribe’s most important natural resources. "It is a prominent part of the community's oral traditions and ceremonial activities, all of which are tied to the natural environment,” the governor said. "The proposed freeway would destroy parts of three ridges of South Mountain and also would destroy or alter many trails, shrines and archaeological sites that constitute significant cultural resources for the community and its members."

The Brookings Institute says “car dependence continues to grow. From 2005 to 2018, the total number of vehicles increased from 196.6 million to 221.4 million—a 12.6 percent jump. That’s 25 million extra cars on the road and almost two cars per household, highlighting the magnitude of the national challenge at hand.”

And yet even more highway expansions are planned. The state’s narrative about highway expansion — including the very term, “free way.” Announcing its new road the Arizona Department of Transportation said: “The Loop 202 South Mountain Freeway is open to traffic, providing a much needed alternative to Interstate 10 through downtown Phoenix while improving the quality of life in a fast-growing region.”

But the facts of global warming suggest the opposite. And driving a vehicle carries a toll that equals 96 pounds of CO2 per person.

On the other hand: An average light rail trip results is more than two thirds less — and a full train saves 85 percent.

About 50,000 people a day ride Phoenix’s light rail system (and voters did recently overwhelmingly approve an expansion). Yet the narrative is very different. Uniformed security teams patrol trains and spot check passengers to make sure they’ve paid. The trains tell riders are told: “Valley Metro is a destination-based service. Riders may not remain on board a light rail vehicle after arriving at their destination.”

The story: Pay. Get on. Get off. And keep quiet. It’s not the freeway.

But what if the metaphor of “the free way” was applied to transit. Phoenix and many other cities offer a few buses that offer short routes for free. But what if all the incentives were aligned to encourage ridership above all? That’s an idea that is being carried out now in Kansas City and is under consideration in Boston, Houston and other cities.

The issue is cost. But is it in the public interest to fully fund transit? Or to ask that question in a climate change context, how much will it cost us all to change behavior?

“What effect would free transit have on ridership?” asks a report by the Transit Center. “Around the world, the verdict is still out on whether going fare free substantially changes people’s travel choices. In Dunkirk, population 100,000, ridership increased by 85 percent immediately after the introduction of fare-free transit. But in Tallinn, population 426,000, ridership has only increased by 3 percent in the five years since transit was made free.”

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That same study says the most important thing that transit systems can do, however, is improve the structure and frequency of mass transit. “Making transit fast, frequent, and reliable. In just a few short years, Seattle has nearly tripled the number of people able to walk to frequent transit, and ridership continues to climb,” the report said.

Rep. Sharice Davids, Ho Chunk, in Washington, D.C. Davids represents Kansas' third district in the Congress. (Photo by Mark Trahant, Indian Country Today)

Rep. Sharice Davids, Ho Chunk, in Washington, D.C. Davids represents Kansas' third district in the Congress. (Photo by Mark Trahant, Indian Country Today)

Rethinking the grid

Rep. Sharice Davids, Ho Chunk, said transportation and climate change was one of the reasons why she wanted to be on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. She represents Kansas' third district. 

Davids said “there are so many opportunities for us to really have an impact on climate change.” The Kansas City metro area is having a lot of conversations now about “intermodal” transportation or routes that involve more than one form of transportation.

“In a place like Kansas City,” she said, “We have the, this mixture of urban, suburban, and rural. And you know, it's not a one size fits all solution for how we can get people places more efficiently to get people places in a more green way. So we have a pilot on for micro transit, which kind of bridges that transit.”

The Johnson County, Kansas, micro transit works like a public version of Uber. Picking up riders in vans from bus stations and dropping them a short distance away for $1.50. This does two things, moves people at a lower cost and reduces emissions in the air.

The system also works with other rural areas.

“So you know, you can ride the bus and get to a hub in like Mission Kansas, which is in the suburbs, and then call the micro transit using their app and for a lower cost than if you were to call use a ride hailing app,” said Davids. Then “you can get to your, your place of work or home from that, from that hub.”

The opportunity is to rethink infrastructure and build towards a “bold, green, resilient” system, David says. “It’s not like there's not any other option. I mean that's the way we talked about it is recognizing that climate change is real and that we have to be doing something about it and that our infrastructure is one of the key places.”

Davids said there is an unique opportunity for tribes because many of the transportation systems are only just beginning — and micro transportation fits into that framework.

There is a set aside for tribal mass transit programs — most often bus systems. Last year the U.S. The Department of Transportation awarded grants to tribes including the Kenaitze Tribe on the Kenai Peninsula. The Alaska Native Village of Nulato Village received funding for tribal citizens to be able to bus to the airport.

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Back to Arizona

One lesson from rethinking transportation systems is the connection with everything else. If people live near work, then commuting is less of an issue.

This is already true for more young people who have made the decision that driving is overrated. A 2017 story in American City and County magazine says: “Millennials – the 83 million people born between 1982 and 2003 – are rejecting cars in favor of alternative modes of transportation. As these young people are the next generation of innovators and up-and-comers in the workforce, it’s no surprise that communities offering viable and multiple alternative transportation options are growing. If our cities want to experience similar growth trends, they are going to have to fundamentally rethink their transportation structures.”

In fact the data suggests that young people are thinking differently about work, place and transportation.

One example of that could be communities designed without cars being at the center. That’s exactly what’s happening in Tempe, Arizona.

Joseph Kane, writing for Brookings Institute, says Culdesac Tempe aims to promote a new type of walkable neighborhood. Residents will not be allowed to have cars or park there. “Instead, Culdesac Tempe will promote ride-sharing, biking, and other flexible transportation options (including a nearby light rail station) that will free up more land for open space and amenities,” Kane writes. “Culdesac Tempe is an important first step, but banning cars in a handful of neighborhoods won’t solve the larger transportation problem in metropolitan Phoenix and many other regions: the need to travel long distances to access economic opportunity.”

He said it’s one way to get people thinking differently about work and place.

“No single strategy, or development, will obviate our need to travel long distances,” Kane says. “But plans focused on improving walkability and connectivity — across different neighborhoods and whole regions — should become the norm if we’re to address the inefficiencies and inequities in our legacy transportation systems.”

Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Follow him on Twitter - @TrahantReports

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Correction: This story was updated to reflect that Phoenix transit security teams only spot check passengers.