Transportation now emits more CO2 than power plants

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For the first time since 1978, America’s transportation industry emits more greenhouse gases than the country’s electricity-producing power plants. Even as Americans have consumed more electricity, it has begun to be generated from cleaner sources: coal power has declined by more than a third in the last decade, while cleaner natural gas plants have increased by more than 60%. And, of course, the construction of new wind and solar plants adds electricity to the grid without a concomitant rise in carbon emissions. 

60% of the transportation sector’s carbon emissions come from light-duty vehicles like passenger cars, SUVs, and pick-up trucks, and light vehicle emissions in absolute terms have been fairly stable since 1990. Although emissions standards and fuel efficiency requirements have become much stricter in the 21st century, Americans still have a well-known preference for large SUVs and pick-up trucks—car sales a percentage of total US light-vehicle sales have been steadily declining since 1980, with only a brief surge from 2007-13 when gas prices were at their height. Since 2013 cars have continued to lose market share, currently representing about 35% of new light-vehicles sold. Still, the overall amount of greenhouse gases (around 97% of that is CO2) emitted by light-duty vehicles only increased 9.5% from 1990 to 2015.

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Medium- and heavy-duty trucks (defined by the EPA as having a gross vehicle weight rating over 8,500 lbs), on the other hand, have increased their greenhouse gas emissions by 79.3% since 1990, more than eight times the rate of increase of light vehicles. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, from 1995 to 2015, the number of trucks in fleets only increased 4.6%. Greenhouse gas emission from aviation sources declined 15.1% from 1990-2015, and maritime emissions shrank 26.4% over the same period.  

As the electrification of the auto industry progresses, the trendlines for power plant emissions and transportation emissions should start converging because more and more cars will be powered by the grid. By the late 2030s, electric car sales should exceed internal combustion engine cars. Today, electric cars are still largely powered by coal

Transport’s CO2 emissions and the rapid growth of emissions from commercial trucks help contextualize recent unveilings of electric semis by Tesla and Thor. The battery technology needed to make these trucks commercially viable in longhaul markets is still untested, but the upsurge in orders for Tesla’s Semi—including the 125 truck order from UPS—proves that big carriers and shippers are trying to go green, or at least get their brands in the news for going green.

At this point the future of emissions from cars and light trucks is uncertain. In the summer of 2017 the Trump administration took steps to rewrite the stringent upcoming fuel efficiency standards for model years 2022-5. The GOP tax bill does maintain the generous $7,500 tax credit for electric vehicle purchases that Tesla relies upon to make its cars attractive to consumers. Earlier drafts of the bill eliminated the credit, but it was eventually retained after a coalition of automakers and a letter signed by two dozen mayors pressured Congress to keep it. The Trump administration’s repeal of the Obama Clean Power Plan, a major driver of downward-trending power plant emissions, may also have some effect on the amount of greenhouse gas emitted by power plants in absolute terms and relative to transport.

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