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Congress, states can enable carbon emissions cuts from freight with better planning

Freight transport is responsible for a large—and rising—share of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Despite great strides in truck efficiency and the potential to transition to electric trucks in many applications, vehicle improvements are not enough to deliver a sustainable freight sector. We need a freight network that is itself more efficient, with streamlined truck routing and loading, as well as greater use of trains and ships.

new ACEEE report examines how state freight planning can advance efficient freight networks and shows how federal transportation law—which Congress is working to update right now—could help. In fact, Congress’s pending reauthorization of federal transportation programs may be the best opportunity for several years to help the freight sector chart a new course.

Read the Report

The U.S. House passed a transportation bill this month as part of a broader infrastructure bill. The bill included several helpful provisions for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, though it missed some opportunities to enable emissions reductions from the freight sector. The Senate's transportation bill has only moved through committee, and it largely fails to tackle freight planning.

The last two federal transportation bills—MAP-21 and FAST Act—delivered much-needed funding opportunities for freight projects, but fell short of articulating a coherent national freight policy, especially with respect to freight’s impacts on the climate. This has consequences at the state level. While states must have approved freight plans in place to be eligible for federal funding, the plans are not currently required to show how states will reduce freight sector emissions.

 These days, many states are setting their own climate goals, and an efficient freight system will be important to meeting those goals. But for the most part, state climate efforts appear not to extend to freight planning.

State freight plans neglect climate

ACEEE reviewed state freight plans to understand whether and how, in the absence of clear federal direction, states sought to ensure that their freight projects and policies would improve efficiency and reduce emissions. We looked for explicit improvement targets as well as indirect approaches such as building a modally balanced freight system—essential given the high emissions per ton-mile of trucking—or using mobile computing and real-time data to minimize underutilized capacity in the system, for example.

We took a deeper dive into the plans of a few states we suspected, for a variety of reasons, might be ahead of the curve on freight planning. California emerged as the clear leader in our review, with a comprehensive (draft) freight plan that sets a goal of a 20% reduction in the carbon intensity of goods movement by 2030. Other states’ plans had features that could help to advance freight sustainability: Minnesota’s project planning is highly multimodal, while Nevada’s plan clearly defines a set of freight performance metrics and targets. However, only California could be said to have a strategy for emissions reduction. Without such a strategy, states will squander gains from cleaner trucks on offsetting increasing truck miles and may struggle to turn the freight sector emissions trajectory downward.

Getting a better freight plan in place should be on the agenda of any state working toward climate goals. Fortunately, the efficiency improvements that are key to greenhouse gas reduction will also produce a freight system that better supports economic activity.

Federal guidance needed

State and regional governments drive freight policy and planning, with input from freight industry and community stakeholders. But a well-defined national freight policy is essential as well, especially when it comes to sustainability and the environment. As a major funder of freight projects, the federal government must ensure that the national interest is served with those dollars.

The House infrastructure bill takes a step in that direction by specifying that reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and local pollution is a goal of national freight policy. It also raises the cap on the amount of funding that can go to non-highway freight projects and provides funding for freight projects emphasizing “operational, technological, and mode shift strategies,” which should help. These provisions should make their way into the final bill.

 But beyond those provisions, the bill should require state freight plans to define and advance sustainability goals, and it should provide tools to help states deliver. A performance measure for freight carbon dioxide emissions would be a good start—just assembling the information needed to set a baseline and target would help states get a handle on the often-elusive data required to understand the impacts of goods movement. Other planning requirements, from mode-share targets to data-sharing protocols, would also help. These steps to improve freight system efficiency should be added to the transportation bill as it makes its way through Congress.

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