Opinion | Energy & Environment

Biden has an ambitious climate plan, but it needs to do much more to decarbonize the transport sector

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Compared to where he stood just a few months ago, Joe Biden has come a long way on climate change. The language in his new climate plan is strong: optimistic, technology driven, framed by the goal of economic prosperity and a commitment to good jobs and environmental justice. The investment to reduce climate pollution - $2 trillion over four years - is serious.

But on transportation, the Biden plan is not ambitious enough. This is concerning because transportation is the biggest source of climate pollution in the U.S., even bigger than the power or industrial sectors.

What's missing? Biden should set a target date for when the U.S. must reach 100 percent electrification for new light-duty and heavy-duty vehicles and lay out an agenda for how to achieve this goal. A gasoline and diesel powered transportation system will not help the U.S. achieve the reduction in climate pollution we need for a safe and prosperous future. 

Biden's proposal moves in the right direction with significant infrastructure investment for electrification - 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations - and makes electric vehicle (EV) manufacturing a focus for creating one million auto industry jobs - a commitment that has drawn the support of the United Auto Workers. The plan would use public sector procurement to spur demand for EVs, boost research into battery technology, even convert all the country's school buses to electric ones. And, importantly, it would recommit the federal government to standards that would cut climate pollution from transportation by encouraging automakers to build and sell more fuel efficient and electric cars and trucks. 

But we need even more ambition. The U.S. is falling further and further behind the rest of the world's major auto markets in the transition to EVs. Losing the race to electrify transport risks undercutting the massive economic and social gains this transition is already demonstrating. The auto and truck manufacturing industries need a strong, high-level signal from the U.S. government that delaying electrification will cost Americans in terms of jobs, public health and global competitiveness. 

Major vehicle markets in Europe and Asia have recognized the climate and consumer benefits of electric vehicles and they have reacted by setting ambitious targets. Norway is farthest along at nearly 60 percent electrification today with a target of 100 percent EV sales in 2025. Larger countries such as the UK, France and Germany - each with their own auto makers, manufacturing plants and labor unions - have also set targets for reaching 100 percent electrification in 2035, 2040 and 2050 respectively. China considers electric vehicles a pathway towards economic development and global competitiveness for its auto industry. Today, it is the world's largest producer and market for electric vehicles.

The U.S. can scale up our production of EVs and charging stations by setting a similarly ambitious target to fully phase out gasoline and diesel vehicle sales and reach 100 percent EVs in new vehicle sales. Either 2040 (following France) or 2035 (following the UK) would be reasonable - although 2035 would be more consistent with science to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. In parallel, under the Clean Air Act, we can grow the EV market by setting new vehicle emissions standards for 2026 through 2035, and support the needed investments in vehicle, battery cell manufacturing and charging infrastructure to drive electrification and create new jobs. This would give each manufacturer flexibility to choose its own technology pathway to electrification while still reducing fuel consumption, and thus climate emissions, from the remaining combustion fleet.

The U.S. is in the enviable position of having domestic car maker Tesla leading the global transition towards electric vehicles, and other promising startups like Rivian, Nikola and Proterra. Clean vehicle technology supports 288,000 manufacturing and engineering jobs at more than 1,200 facilities in 48 states. Ambitious targets will only add significantly to those numbers.

The rise of these manufacturers in an industry that has traditionally had high barriers to entry did not happen by chance. It was sparked and nurtured by visionary government officials in California who created a zero-emission vehicle program nearly three decades ago. But it was the federal government that loaned Tesla $465 million under President Obama's Clean Energy program and enabled the company to develop its game-changing Tesla S.

The claims of old-school naysayers that traditional automakers would easily overtake startup companies like Tesla's early lead have now been completely discredited. Instead, the world's automakers have publicly announced some $300 billion in investments to transition to electric vehicles over the next decade. VW and Daimler lead the group with $91 billion and $42 billion, respectively. GM, Ford and FiatChrysler are planning some $29 billion, combined. 

An effective climate policy approach in transportation will start with targets and include standards, fiscal incentives, infrastructure and consumer awareness. Governments in Europe and China have realized that: Germany allocated billions in COVID-19 stimulus fundings towards doubling consumer incentives  to purchase EVs and earlier this year, China extended fiscal subsidies for EVs until 2022. If they continue to create the policy environment needed to build an electrified automotive industry and road transportation sector, while the U.S. hangs back, then those are the places where the next generation of automobile manufacturing and battery plants will be built, and those are the places that will best capitalize on the inevitable shift to electric transportation.

Should Biden enact a strong transportation strategy, the U.S. future will be a healthier environment, a modernized auto industry built on good-paying jobs, reduced dependence on oil, savings at the pump / charging station for motorists, and quiet, pollution free streets for everyone.

Margo T. Oge served as former director of the EPA's Office of Transportation Air Quality, from 1994 to 2012. Drew Kodjak is the executive director of the International Council on Clean Transportation.

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