To protect frontline and rural communities, we must electrify
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The world’s leading climate scientists just issued a report warning that time is running out to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. Drought, wildfires, torrential downpours, heat waves and other extreme weather events are battering communities from California to New York, wreaking havoc on our cities, rural communities and everywhere in between. Frontline communities — those impacted first and worst by climate change — are comprised of majority Black and brown populations and are far more likely to be harmed by these extreme weather events due to generations of institutional inequities and disinvestment. These are unnatural disasters and, if recent history serves as an indicator, this is just the beginning.

Congress must pass an infrastructure package that makes significant investments to tackle the climate crisis, including drastically cutting pollution, creating jobs and, critically, addressing environmental injustice. To decarbonize, we will need to rewire many aspects of our economy, transportation system, and infrastructure. In other words: to save America, we must electrify.

As the Environmental Protection Agency notes, our transportation sector has become the single-largest source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the United States. Fossil-fuel burning cars, trucks, and buses are also extensive contributors to local air pollution, such as ozone and particulate matter, leading to detrimental health issues. Underserved communities are disproportionately vulnerable to these impacts and have borne the brunt of climate change driven by transportation emissions, making equity an urgent factor in transportation sector electrification and the move toward a clean energy economy.

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The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) recently published a report analyzing the life-cycle GHG emissions of combustion engine and electric passenger cars — and the results are clear: only battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) powered by renewable electricity can achieve the kind of deep reductions in GHG emissions from transportation to keep global warming below 2° C, or approximately 3.6° F.

Decarbonizing the transportation sector in an equitable manner must be at the top of Congress’ priorities as it works to pass the president’s Build Back Better Agenda. This should be done holistically, by incentivizing multimodal mobility systems from public transportation and ride-sharing solutions to personal vehicles and micro-mobility options. We need to establish used electric vehicle (EV) credits and new purchase incentives, and ensure availability of EV infrastructure in order to improve access for low- and moderate-income consumers. Further, filling gaps in the supply chains of critical clean technologies, i.e., EVs and battery cells, through investment and production tax credits focusing on historically excluded Black and brown communities will ensure quality, good-paying jobs. 

If we are not intentional in our actions, the communities that have the most to gain from an electrified transportation sector will also be among the last and least to realize its benefits, which puts all of us behind and continues a pattern of “privileged mobility,” in which where you live determines your ability to access innovative, clean mobility options.  

Legislation, such as the Electric Vehicles for Underserved Communities Act, ensures all Americans benefit from the clean vehicle future by directing the Department of Energy to support the creation of 200,000 electric vehicle-charging stations in underrepresented communities over the next decade. Organizations like EVHybridNoire are at the forefront of this endeavor to ensure that transportation solutions are inclusive and equitable.

Congressional leaders must act now to address research and development needs, purchase incentives, publicly accessible charging infrastructure, workplace charging and incentives to expand EV manufacturing and supply chains nationwide. The right policies will put the U.S. in the “driver’s seat” to build and advance our nation’s electric transportation future.

We have one opportunity, now, to decarbonize, electrify, and save America. If we don’t address transportation electrification boldly, swiftly, and equitably, we face a certain future of increasingly severe climate disasters, exacerbated disparities, and economic devastation that reverberates from sea to shining sea.

Congresswoman Yvette D. Clarke represents New York's 9th District. Terry Travis is co-founder and director of EVHybridNoire, the nation’s largest network of diverse electric vehicle (EV) drivers and enthusiasts, whose mission is to advance EVs and multimodal electric mobility solutions (e.g., electric cars, electric buses, electric bikes, electric scooters) across the United States, and ensure those solutions are inclusive and equitable.