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US releases ambitious plans to decarbonise transportation

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The Biden-Harris Administration has released an ambitious plan to decarbonise transportation, the highest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitting sector in the US. The plan involves coordination between four different federal agencies, and also targets economic gains, benefiting low-income communities, and contributing to the country’s energy independence.

  • The Biden-Harris Administration has released its strategy to cut all GHG emissions from the transportation sector by 2050.
  • The US National Blueprint for Transportation Decarbonization is part of plans of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and a 100% clean electrical grid by 2035.
  • Its interim targets will be important in gauging the success of the strategy, which will require coordination between government agencies, policymakers, and public and private sectors.

Accounting for one-third of all emissions in the US, decarbonising the transportation sector is a major priority for the Biden-Harris Administration in reaching net zero by 2050. The US National Blueprint for Transportation Decarbonization highlights the government’s plans to eliminate “nearly all GHG emissions” from the largest source of such emissions in the country.

Blueprint adopts ‘whole-of-government’ approach

The blueprint adopts a ‘whole-of-government’ approach to achieving its goals, requiring the coordination and cooperation between state, local and Tribal governments, industry, non-profits and other stakeholders. Indeed, it was jointly announced by the secretaries of the Department of Energy (DoE), the Department of Transportation (DoT), Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

“The domestic transportation sector presents an enormous opportunity to drastically reduce emissions that accelerate climate change and reduce harmful pollution,” said US Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm.

“Transportation policy is inseparable from housing and energy policy, and transportation accounts for a major share of US greenhouse gas emissions, so we must work together in an integrated way to confront the climate crisis,” added US Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg.

Decarbonisation plans tied to public welfare and cost savings

The Biden-Harris Administration’s climate action strategy has elements of impact included in it as well, helping align it with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). According to government estimates, inaction over climate change could cost up to $2 trillion annually or 10% of gross domestic product (GDP) by the end of the century. The urgency is high, and the time to act is now. 

Transportation costs have been identified as the second largest annual household expense in the US by the blueprint, making the financial burden of transportation disproportionately high for low-income communities. 

By transforming the transportation system, and by making mobility safer and more affordable, the government also has an opportunity to improve quality of life, creating sustainable, healthy, resilient, and equitable communities. Developing clean-energy technologies such as electric vehicles and hydrogen and sustainable fuels, along with the requisite supporting infrastructure helping create good-paying jobs, is expected to strengthen the country’s energy independence.  

Multi-agency coordination and enacting policy present challenges to the blueprint

Collaboration and coordination among four federal agencies will be vital to driving the plan to decarbonise US transportation. A memorandum of understanding signed between the DoE, the DoT, the EPA and HUD in September 2022 formalises their working relationship.

An essential part of these four agencies working together will be to guide future policies, research and development activities, and deployment of solutions in the public and private sectors. Funding for these activities is expected to come from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act.

While the Administration’s ambitions appear to have a plan, funding and agency collaboration in place, much of the success will depend on their implementation and execution. Choices made by regional, state, local and Tribal recipients of government funding, and getting the private sector to participate where needed are considered challenges the government needs to overcome.

Transitioning the US transportation sector to clean energy also risks antagonising a major industry group, which has strong political backing in the country. The backlash against ESG investing in 19 Republican-led US states may create headwinds for many of the policies needed to execute the blueprint.

The blueprint ambitiously provides a decade-wise progression of development and deployment of clean energy technologies for transportation. With election cycles, however, causing potential changes in the legislative and executive branches of the government, envisaging progress beyond 2024 may be wishful thinking.

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