Climate plan sparks debate over cars, planes

Source: By Maxine Joselow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Eliminate air travel. End the internal combustion engine.

Those are two of the most controversial proposals in a fact sheet accompanying the “Green New Deal” resolution released last week by Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

Indeed, the landmark climate resolution is fostering an intense debate about the future of the nation’s cars, trucks, planes, boats and other methods of getting around.

On one side of the debate: President Trump and conservative pundits, who are bashing the resolution’s goals as unworkable and untethered from reality.

“I think it is very important for the Democrats to press forward with their Green New Deal,” Trump wrote in a tweet this weekend. “It would be great for the so-called ‘Carbon Footprint’ to permanently eliminate all Planes, Cars, Cows, Oil, Gas & the Military — even if no other country would do the same. Brilliant!”

On the other are environmentalists and their allies in the Democratic Party who say massive changes in the transportation sector are necessary for addressing the scope of the climate crisis.

The fact sheet — which was later taken down — stressed the need to “build out high-speed rail at a scale where air travel stops becoming necessary, create affordable public transit available to all, with [a] goal to replace every combustion-engine vehicle.”

Fox News correspondent Laura Ingraham took aim at the proposal in a video clip last week titled “Green New Deal wages war against air travel, cows.”

“Do you like flying across the country in five hours? Well, too bad,” Ingraham said. “The AOC plan calls for ‘building high-speed rail at a scale where air travel stops becoming necessary.’ Sorry, Hawaii.”

Ingraham also derided the plan’s goal of replacing traditional gas-powered vehicles with electric vehicles “ridiculous.”

“What AOC fails to mention,” she said, “is that different cars would mean basically 99 percent of those currently on the road.”

But environmentalists counter that all options should be on the table for curbing planet-warming emissions from transportation, which in 2016 surpassed power plants as the country’s largest source of greenhouse gases.

The U.S. transportation sector — which includes cars, trucks, planes, trains and boats — emits roughly 1.9 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The power sector emits 1.8 billion tons annually.

In a report last year, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change specifically warned that the transportation sector needs to rapidly decarbonize if the world wants to avert the worst impacts of a warming planet (Climatewire, Oct. 9, 2018).

“This mobilization provides a recipe for bold action that’s needed to address the climate crisis,” Luke Tonachel, director for clean vehicles and clean fuels at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said of the “Green New Deal” resolution. “The clean energy and transportation mobilization called for is both doable and visionary, and it really outlines the suite of areas that we should get to work on now.”

Carol Lee Rawn, senior director of transportation with Ceres, a nonprofit that works with businesses and investors to promote sustainability, called the resolution a “very positive development.”

“It rightly recognizes the importance of addressing emissions from the transportation sector, which is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States,” Rawn said.

With regard to high-speed rail replacing air travel, Rawn noted that aviation has been tough to decarbonize. And, like EVs, high-speed trains run on electricity, so they’re less carbon-intensive than flying.

A 2018 study in the Journal of Advanced Transportation looked at carbon dioxide emissions per passenger in the context of European mass transit and air travel. It found a “remarkable advantage of high speed trains compared to aircraft.”

Still, high-speed rail remains in its infancy in the United States compared with other countries, such as China, Japan, Italy, France and Germany. Those countries have trains capable of traveling at 200 mph, while Amtrak’s fastest route in the United States reaches only 150 mph.

To be sure, the “Green New Deal” fact sheet is separate from the resolution — a point some conservatives seemed to miss in their criticisms.

The actual text of the resolution takes a more muted approach. It calls for “overhauling transportation systems in the United States to remove pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector as much as is technologically feasible, including through investment in zero-emission vehicle infrastructure and manufacturing; clean, affordable and accessible public transit; and high-speed rail.”

Slow progress on high-speed rail

For years, high-speed rail advocates have been asking climate hawks in Congress to promote the technology, pointing to its less carbon-intensive properties.

In fact, the U.S. High Speed Rail Association issued a “New Deal National Rail Plan” in 2009 that contained eerie echoes of the “Green New Deal” now energizing the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

“We actually issued this in 2009,” said Andy Kunz, the group’s president. “So we were kind of ahead of the curve here. And it really went nowhere back then because we didn’t really have anyone in Congress pushing for it. Even President Obama wasn’t.”

Kunz said the group had several conversations about high-speed rail with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election. Sanders ended up including the technology in his platform for the Democratic nomination.

“When we built out our state-of-the-art rail system in the early 1860’s we became global leaders,” Sanders’ campaign website said. “But now our rail system pales in comparison to Japan, Germany and even China in terms of our high-speed passenger and cargo rail systems. Bernie will invest in interstate and intercity high-speed rail systems to bring people and commodities to their destinations more efficiently to save time and money.”

But after Hillary Clinton won the Democratic nod and Donald Trump subsequently won the presidency, Sanders seemed to lose interest in promoting high-speed rail and shifted to other priorities, Kunz said. Other lawmakers — even Democrats who professed to care about innovative new technologies to cut carbon — didn’t step in to fill the void.

“If you notice, high-speed rail never showed up on their menus, even with Markey,” Kunz said. “It was all about electric cars.”

Enter Ocasio-Cortez.

“Now, finally, we have an innovative young person who came to Congress and who got the message. She got the message,” Kunz said of the freshman lawmaker and rising star in the Democratic Party.

Sanders’ and Ocasio-Cortez’s offices didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment this weekend.