Greener Transport Mitigates Climate Change

By McCormack, Frances; Edwards, Frances L. | The Public Manager, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Greener Transport Mitigates Climate Change


McCormack, Frances, Edwards, Frances L., The Public Manager


The emission of greenhouse gasses is considered by most scientists to be a major cause of observed climate change. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), 28 percent of all GHG emissions in the United States came from transportation uses in 2006, 97 percent of which was from the combustion of fossil fuels. Creation of the fuel and the manufacturing of the vehicles add additional GHGs to the "life cycle" calculations for transportation.

According to DOT, passenger cars and small trucks created 63 percent of the transportation-related GHG emission in the United States in 2006, while air transportation represented 9 percent, and buses and rail constituted less than 2 percent of the total. Several strategies are available to lessen this impact on the global environment, but a variety of political and economic barriers exist, as well as a lack of public support for climate change adaptation overall.

Summer 2010 saw an unprecedented heat wave on the East Coast that affected transportation. In Washington, D.C., a train was stopped just minutes out of the station by heat-warped rails and heat-damaged overhead electrical lines, trapping passengers for more than four hours. So while transportation was a victim of climate change in this instance, it is often cited as a potential contributor to climate change mitigation as well.

The Transportation Research Board (TRB) sponsored a study of climate change and its potential impact on transportation. Recognizing that not enough is known about every facet of climate change to make firm predictions, the study none the less pointed out critical areas for adaptation in the transportation domain. TRB notes that capital improvements in transportation systems should consider long-range climate change impacts, such as sea-level rise and increased heat and drought.

Climate change and its related hurricanes and storms also bring transportation into the emergency response arena as an evacuation asset, which requires special consideration when designing roadways or track bed routes. Technology should be applied to monitor and warn about the potential effects of flooding, wave action, winds, and temperatures that exceed the design standard for infrastructure.

Unpredictable climate change means that engineers must build resilience into transportation infrastructure to speed repairs and limit the loss of use of critical transportation assets. Drainage capacity challenged by bigger storms and changes in sea level may compromise existing culverts and storm drains.

Professor Steven Cohen of Columbia University's Earth Institute points to the need for improved--and resilient--transit services in congested cities. Only significant federal subsidies will enable cash-strapped transit agencies to be a partner in GHG emission mitigation through more attractive mass transit systems, and climate change adaptation through more resilient infrastructure. Cohen suggests that congestion pricing for cars in urban areas could generate both the funding and incentive for urban mass transit that could be a partner in climate change management.

Climate Change and Sustainability

Sustainability is garnering international attention. The GHG footprint and its reduction have prompted businesses, agencies, and individuals to proactively find ways to do their part to lessen such emissions and have a mitigating effect on global climate change. At the same time, a worldwide economic downturn has forced attention toward stimulating economies by investing in green development and new technologies. President Obama has said repeatedly that building a new energy economy is at the center of his plans to boost the economy and get people back to work.

But what is meant by sustainability, and how are immediate quality of life issues, such as economic downturns or dependency on fossil fuels, balanced against long-term sustainability efforts? …

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