Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
In light of the IPCC’s dire report, substituting some personal convenience in the present could mean that much more hope for the planet’s future.
A landmark report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released Monday spelled out a grim planetary future in no uncertain terms. If greenhouse gases warm the atmosphere by as much as 1.5 degrees Celsius, the most dire effects of climate change will be unleashed. Coastlines will be submerged, droughts and wildfires exacerbated, coral reefs exterminated, severe food shortages and poverty deepened. And humanity has only a fast-closing 12-year window to make the changes necessary to avoid this fate.
Previously, the IPCC’s work had focused on the effects of 2 degrees Celsius of warming, which scientists once considered the threshold for these nightmarish effects. But that half-degree would quite literally make a world of difference. Climate change will be much worse than the leading authorities thought. Mitigating the worst impacts will take unprecedented, coordinated global action—shutting down coal plants, passing a substantial carbon tax, restoring forests, and sharply cutting transportation emissions.
Such efforts would be akin to an “immediate, coordinated crash program of re-industrialization, involving every major country in the world,” the science journalist David Roberts wrote on Twitter. “It would be like the US mobilizing for WWII, only across the globe, sustained for the rest of the century.”
That would be ludicrously difficult. And visions of a dire climate future, described in what sound like inevitable terms, tend to have a paralyzing effect on individuals, who likely wonder what possible difference their choices might make. But the IPCC also makes clear that no action will make things far worse. And it describes critical areas where habits and individual decisions—”demand-side mitigation and behavioural changes,” in the words of the IPCC report—can make an difference.
In developed nations like the United States, arguably the most important of these personal decisions involve transportation. Globally, transportation accounted for 28 percent of the world’s energy demand and 23 percent of its carbon emissions in 2014. But in the U.S., emissions from transportation—the single largest carbon-producing economic sector in the U.S.—are on the rise, as gas prices fall and employment ticks up. Emissions from other sectors, meanwhile, are sharply declining.
According to the report, decarbonizing the transportation sector would require electrifying vehicle fleets, shifting mobility choices from low- to high-efficiency modes en masse, and transforming urban planning to curtail sprawl and make walking, biking, and transit use easier. Technology-focused measures, such as improving energy efficiency and switching fuel sources, figure most prominently in scientists’ best roadmaps to mitigating transportation emissions. But structural and behavioral changes, namely “the switching of passengers and freight from less- to more-efficient travel modes (e.g., cars, trucks and airplanes to buses and trains),” will be critical, too, the report’s second chapter states.
This report comes at a time when President Donald Trump is aggressively backpedaling on the (already insufficient) progress made by previous administrations to rein in carbon emissions, of which the U.S. is the world’s second-largest producer. The Trump administration has scrapped Obama-era vehicle fuel standards and attempted to revive coal the coal industry by easing environmental regulations and hampering the growth of renewable energy. The White House also expanded plans for offshore drilling, opened up federal lands for extraction, and has withdrawn the U.S. from the Paris Climate Accord.
In the U.S., it seems only enormous political pressure at the state and local level will press the policies required to approach the changes described by the IPCC report. Individual transportation choices will add up to them actually mattering. Those with the ability to decide whether to drive, walk, scoot, hail an Uber, take the bus, or book a flight are the critical agents in the mode shifts the IPCC describes. Switching to an electric vehicle can be good; even better is using an existing vehicle sparingly or going car-free. Scaling back personal vehicle mileage by 5,000 miles a year will save the planet more than a ton of carbon. Eliminating a single transatlantic flight can cut frequent fliers’ carbon emissions by a quarter. In addition to cutting meat consumption, travel decisions like this are the most important carbon reductions individuals can make.
And, yes, this will require sacrifice—not only because people like cars and planes, but because Americans want to travel more, not less. Vehicle miles traveled crested 1.58 trillion in the first half of 2018, which was 5.2 billion miles more than the same period a year ago; airline travel is projected to double over the next two decades.
Even at the local level, where some of the most promising action of carbon emissions have emerged in the era of Trump, the arrows are not pointing in the right direction. Transit use is declining and new vehicle-based modes increasingly populate the roads. While the ride-hailing companies disrupting urban transportation networks promise to eliminate private car ownership, that won’t be enough to balance their contributions to transportation emissions so long as the cheap rides they offer, at prices that compete with transit, expand the market for mobility in general.
The subtext of this report, after all, is clear enough. Humanity is not on the right trajectory to avoid a terrifying fate, despite decades of increasingly urgent warnings from scientists. But that does not mean it’s time to give up, which appears to be the preferred strategy of the Trump administration. In an environmental impact statement reported on by the Washington Post last month, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration officials cited a predicted 3.5 degrees Celsius of warming by the end of the century, only to use that information to justify the president’s decision to freeze fuel standards for vehicles built after 2020.
That kind of perverse logic guarantees climate catastrophe. Those lucky and wealthy enough to have free agency in the way they live must acknowledge the enormous choice before them: Actively substitute some personal convenience in the present for that much more hope for the planet’s future.