How new transportation options and electric vehicles can slash greenhouse gases

Researchers at Boston University find that current trends in the transportation industry could collectively lead to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

We’re living through historic upheavals in transportation and transit in the United States. Electric car sales are climbing, car sharing and pooling companies such as Uber are booming, and autonomous vehicles are already on the road.

New research by Peter Fox-Penner, Questrom Professor of the Practice and Director of the Boston University Institute for Sustainable Energy (ISE)Jennifer Hatch, Research Fellow (ISE), and UC-Berkeley’s Will Gorman suggests that harnessing these trends effectively could lead to massive reductions in greenhouse gas emissions — without overtaxing the electric utility grid. The study represents the first time that these three trends have been analyzed at a nationwide scale with a multi-decade scope.

By expanding the Kaya identity framework, a common model used to forecast transportation energy and emissions, the team addressed each transportation disruption. Their work shows that bolstering electric vehicle use during this time of transition, and pairing it with the rapid decarbonization of the electric sector, could trim the nation’s vehicle greenhouse gas emissions by up to 80 percent by 2050.

Such progress would be a major victory, says Hatch. “Transportation emissions are 26 percent of the total emissions in the United States,” says Hatch. “We need to look at realistic ways to reduce those numbers.”

The team considered multiple potential futures. They looked at policy cases, in which strong environmental policies encourage more efficient travel. They also considered stress cases that represented the highest electricity use scenario that could realistically occur. Both outcomes lead to only modest annual growth in electricity needs.

The team also found that benefits accrued solely by electrifying the transportation base. Their research showed that even if the electricity grid itself is not significantly decarbonized and vehicle miles traveled increase significantly due to car sharing and autonomous vehicle use, transitioning to electric vehicles will reduce greenhouse gas emissions over time. Decarbonizing the electricity grid accelerates those changes.

The policy implications of their findings are clear, says Hatch. “To significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we know what we need to do: electrify the transport sector and decarbonize the electricity grid.”

Read the trio’s complete study on Science Direct.

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