Buttigieg’s Climate Promises: What Could He Actually Do?

WASHINGTON — Pete Buttigieg, President Biden’s choice to lead the Department of Transportation, vowed to make local weather change a prime precedence throughout his Senate affirmation listening to on Thursday.

However that raises a query: How a lot can a transportation secretary realistically do to scale back emissions from America’s huge fleet of vehicles, vehicles and airplanes — all of which the company oversees, to various levels?

Transportation now accounts for one-third of the nation’s greenhouse gases each year. And the sector has been stubbornly troublesome to wash up, because the overwhelming majority of People stays deeply depending on gasoline-fueled automobiles to get round every day.

The federal company has a variety of highly effective coverage levers that may very well be used to attempt to change that. One technique could be to encourage state governments to rethink how they design their roadways and mass transit methods, nudging the USA away from its reliance on car journey. One other is to assist ratchet up fuel-efficiency requirements for brand new vehicles and vehicles and promote cleaner electrical automobiles.

However there are additionally vital constraints: Mr. Buttigieg would almost certainly want to steer lawmakers to move main new laws if he hopes to considerably remodel how the nation will get round. That might show to be a political minefield.

Right here’s a have a look at what the Transportation Division may do on local weather coverage.

A lot of the division’s spending on roads and public transit, which totaled about $47 billion final 12 months, is dictated by strict formulation set by Congress.

However not all of it.

The division additionally doles out $1 billion or so annually in competitive grants that assist states and cities fund particular person transportation tasks. Mr. Buttigieg would have appreciable leeway to reshape these grant packages pretty rapidly, specialists stated.

The Trump administration typically awarded grants to street tasks that inspired automotive journey, corresponding to $34.6 million for a highway interchange to support a new National Football League facility in South Carolina. A extra climate-focused company, in contrast, may announce it was searching for proposals that supplied alternate options to driving, corresponding to bus or bike tasks.

“It’s a small pot of cash, however it sends a strong sign to states and cities,” stated Paul Lewis, vice chairman for coverage and finance on the Eno Middle for Transportation. “And I’d count on the brand new administration to put a higher emphasis on climate-friendly tasks.”

Particular person states — not the federal authorities — usually have ultimate say over how they spend billions of federal {dollars} annually to construct or restore roads and public transit.

However, the Transportation Division may require states to start out monitoring the greenhouse gasoline emissions produced by their transportation methods and set targets for lowering these emissions over time. Whereas states wouldn’t be required to chop their emissions, a bit transparency may go a great distance.

“Proper now, we’re not even measuring greenhouse gasoline emissions and utilizing that to drive venture selections,” stated Kevin DeGood, director for infrastructure coverage on the liberal Middle for American Progress, which has recommended the policy change.

The division may additionally do extra to assist states and cities determine roads and bridges vulnerable to being broken by rising sea ranges and different excessive climate attributable to local weather change, Mr. DeGood stated.

By legislation, the Transportation Division works with the Environmental Safety Company to craft federal gas financial system requirements, which require new vehicles, S.U.V.s and pickup vehicles bought in the USA to make use of much less gasoline over time.

The Obama administration used this authority to require that automakers enhance the effectivity of their fleets by 5 % yearly, on common, for mannequin years 2021 to 2026. The Trump administration weakened that to 1.5 percent per year. On Wednesday, Mr. Biden asked the 2 companies to revisit that call and suggest new, presumably extra bold guidelines by July.

The Transportation Division could have appreciable enter into these guidelines, which may probably be designed to encourage automakers to promote extra cleaner electrical automobiles. One problem, although, is that extra People are shopping for S.U.V.s, which has caused overall fuel economy to stagnate.

Mr. Biden has additionally set a aim of putting in 500,000 new charging stations for electrical automobiles within the subsequent decade. Reaching that daunting aim would almost certainly require Congress to authorize billions of {dollars} in new spending. The Transportation Division may, nonetheless, assist form how and the place these chargers get constructed.

America’s public transit companies are in dire monetary form because the coronavirus outbreak has stored riders away. With out important federal help, specialists have warned, bus and subway methods may collapse, leaving the nation much more depending on polluting private vehicles and S.U.V.s as soon as the pandemic subsides.

That is primarily a job for Congress: Lawmakers accepted $14 billion in transit help final December, and Mr. Biden has proposed one other $20 billion as he seeks new restoration laws.

However the Transportation Division will very possible be carefully concerned in serving to transit companies again on their ft.

“The division can do so much to work with cities to determine assist transit run extra reliably and ensure providers are going to communities that want it most,” stated Ann Shikany, an infrastructure professional on the Pure Sources Protection Council, an environmental group.

Finally, specialists stated, will probably be robust to considerably cut back America’s car emissions except Congress steps in to revamp federal transportation funding.

A chance is arising: The present spherical of federal freeway spending is ready to run out later this 12 months.

Lawmakers in each the Home and the Senate have already proposed an array of reforms that might probably cut back emissions from the transportation sector. Concepts embody boosting the full amount of cash accessible for mass transit and electrical car infrastructure, encouraging biking and strolling, and imposing new local weather situations on the prevailing formulation for freeway spending.

Nonetheless, any adjustments are more likely to show contentious, significantly in a carefully divided Senate.

“Whenever you begin shifting funds round, some states begin gaining and a few states begin dropping,” stated Mr. Lewis, of the Eno Middle for Transportation. “Meaning large reforms can face a chronic political battle.”

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