Dan Sperling and the Zero Carbon Action Plan 

An interview with the godfather of transportation decarbonization

  • Welcome to Decarbonizing Transportation. Every two weeks (or so) we go deep on one topic and present a roundup of the latest decarbonization news at the bottom of the email.

I can’t imagine a better guest for this newsletter than Dan Sperling. He’s been working on transport and climate change since the 1980s. He’s the founding director of  the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis, the leading research center for transportation and the environment in the United States. He holds the transportation seat on the California Air Resources Board. He served twice as lead author for the IPCC and testified 8 times to the US Congress. He’s written a ton on the topic, including a recent book. In short, he’s the godfather of transportation and environmental policy. 

He’s also appeared on some amazing shows: Fresh Air and The Daily Show, among many others. Those, of course, were just the warm up for his appearance in this newsletter. 

I reached out to Dan as one of the lead authors of a big decarbonization report that came out last fall - the Zero Carbon Action Plan (ZCAP). For the transportation section, see p 188 here. Since we’ve dissected other ‘pathways to zero emissions’ in this newsletter ( UK, Boston, and Toronto), it seemed like a great chance to dive into the weeds on this one with Dan. 

Our conversation covers some of the controversial areas that often spark debate: how much should we aim to reduce travel in cars, and how much should we focus on electrifying vehicles? Are plug-in hybrids a real climate fighting tool? Will our newfound love for telework lower emissions, or raise them? What role is there (if any) for hydrogen as a transportation fuel? No one’s been working on these issues longer than Dan, which made for a great conversation. 

It was so great that I had to break into two parts. If you want to learn about how Dan got into the business, the complete history of California’s zero emission vehicle rules, and what’s surprised him about the last 30 years of climate progress in transportation, you’ll have to tune in to part 2 in a future newsletter. 

As always, you can find a roundup of the latest transport decarbonization news at the bottom of the email.

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Andrew Salzberg (AS): So let's talk about the Zero Carbon Action Plan for the United States (ZCAP).  The two major strategies you argue for are moving to zero emission vehicles, and reducing travel demand. There are advocates for both of those two strategies, and they don't always agree with each other. How do you think about combining those two approaches?

Dan Sperling (DS): There is some tension when you talk about reducing travel, measured in Vehicle Miles Travelled (VMT). Those opposing VMT policies mention American values of freedom and independence and less government intervention. They also say, “if you're going to electrify the vehicles, why do we even have to talk about reducing VMT?” That's the major pushback.

On the other side of that battle those who are “anti car,” even when it comes to Electric Vehicles (EVs) -but in the United States, that's a really miniscule group. It's different in Europe. There the anti-car advocates are more powerful. Here, they’re barely on the radar.

AS : You do go out of your way in the plan to write in a way that is inclusive to those advocates who worry we’re putting all of our energy into electric cars, though. 

DS: You know, after my last book came out, I did 70 talks in one year. Everywhere from Uber and Lyft headquarters to City Councils to NGOs. And what I learned is that if we want to be effective in the policy process, we should never lead with VMT reduction. It really doesn't have much of a constituency. And so the way to pitch it is that we want to increase accessibility and mobility in our transportation system. In other words, we want to increase passenger miles travelled, but reduce vehicle miles travelled, by getting people to use modes of travel other than their own car with a single occupant. I think that's a much better framing. 

We also want to think about the rising importance of the Environmental Justice (EJ) movement.  A pitch that responds to that movement is one that focuses on increasing mobility and accessibility. One area where the EJ movement is falling short in accomplishing its larger goals, in my view, is being distracted by electric vehicle (EV) initiatives. Yes, EVs provide local pollution and health benefits. But, as you know, new vehicles are bought by wealthy people. Something like 30% of the households in the US buy almost all the new vehicles. Everyone else buys used vehicles. So, focusing on electric cars does not offer as much benefit to lower income or even middle income communities, as does better mobility.

We want every community to determine their own top priority when it comes to transport decarbonization. For many communities, their top priorities are not likely to be electric vehicles. It might be anything from widening sidewalks to getting big trucks out of their neighborhoods to better transit. The goal, in my view, is to improve accessibility and mobility but doing it in a way that does not increase VMT. That means more and better transit, bicycle infrastructure, scooters, subsidized sharing of ride-hailing trips, and better internet for e-commerce, tele-health, and tele-commuting.

AS: How much do those VMT-related policies directly support decarbonization?

DS: VMT reduction is important, but not nearly as much as EVs, when it comes to decarbonization.  But VMT reduction is important for many other reasons, related to health, sustainable cities, local pollution, land use efficiency, and more. But VMT is indeed important to climate change, because if we follow the path we're on, it's gonna be really hard to electrify. With current trends, we're talking about 50% more VMT and car ownership by 2050. If we don’t reduce VMT and car ownership, getting to that 100% electric future is going to be really hard. 

But also, in a technical sense, reducing car ownership is important because every car has a  large carbon footprint just from manufacturing. With battery electric cars, it's something like 15 to 20% of the lifetime carbon comes from manufacturing. We can, and will reduce the use of fossil fuels for manufacturing, but it's still a lot of material. It's a lot of stuff.  If we have a totally car centric transportation system, it's just going to be fundamentally harder to electrify. It means more road and parking infrastructure, more energy infrastructure, more space devoted to cars, more of everything. So when talking about a future with less vehicle travel but more passenger travel, I focus on more pooled rides and shared services, more micromobility, and better integration of modes. 

AS: The report says the single most important thing for decarbonizing transportation is a national EV sales mandate. What do you think about the prospects of a national EV sales mandate in the next four years or beyond?

DS: Probably not likely, unfortunately. And if it does happen, it'll probably be significantly weaker than what California and the 177 states do. I really think that the most important thing a new federal government could do is letting California and the other states march on. California is committed to  a 100% EV sales mandate for 2035, or something very close to that. Add in the other 177 states, and that's 30 to 40% of the US market right there. That'll probably be enough to push the whole industry. After all, the rest of the world is going in that direction and the US is lagging. The car industry will be sitting there saying: "okay, the EU is going electric, China's going electric, and half of the US is doing it."  So job done - almost. 

AS: On the topic of letting state and local jurisdictions lead on this topic, the report has a little paragraph about low emission zones [ed. note - we previously wrote about low emission zones here]. My understanding is the Clean Air Act prevents US cities from implementing low emission zones.

DS: There may need to be some Federal action to enable it, or some clever legal strategies. But the US is not set up very well for low emission zones. We've got so much sprawl and so much vehicle activity. 

I think freight may be where the interesting opportunities for geographic regulation on emissions are. It could be rules where you have to be operating either a zero emission or low NOx truck. New technology has made that type of restriction easier. I think the opportunities are probably greater with trucks, partly because they're more of an environmental justice issue. And so that means there's more support for doing something about it. 

AS: I feel like I've been hearing a lot from Europe that Plug in Hybrids are just a dieselgate waiting to happen. What's your thinking on plug in hybrids?

DS: The European situation is completely different from the US situation. Their testing procedures and their incentive procedures are very different. They give huge incentives for plug in hybrids. And the purchase and sales incentives are so big that people are less focused on their actual operation on electricity.  If it’s inconvenient to charge, then it's not a big deal - or at least that is how many buyers experience it.  And then you have the company car phenomenon. In many European countries, almost half of vehicle sales are company cars. Again, drivers are less focused on charging, exacerbated by many companies that have antiquated rules whereby you get reimbursed for gasoline but not for electricity. On top of all that, automakers get generous credits under their CO2 performance standard rules, which encourages them to subsidize their sale. That’s not necessarily bad except it shifts many sales from all electric vehicles to plug-in hybrid sales. Here in the US, we don’t have those same distortions. I think PHEVs are a key technology, certainly for the transition period to electric vehicles, and maybe even well beyond that.

AS: We should talk about hydrogen. The ZCAP seems to have a relatively minor role for hydrogen, primarily just for heavy duty trucks, and primarily later in the 2030s. 

DS: There’s definitely a possible role for hydrogen in heavy duty, but I’m not 100% sure the battle for light duty vehicles is over. A lot of people like to say batteries have won the battle for light duty, but I'm not sure that's correct. We've got a long, long ways to go even in California. We're only at 8% of sales being zero emission vehicles. EVs are going to be problematic for a lot of people. Maybe you live in an apartment building, you don't have the space for charging, you take a lot of long trips, etc. The first 30 or 40% of vehicles will probably be the easiest to convert to battery electric. The last 30% are going to be really hard. And fuel cells might make a comeback there. We're building hydrogen stations in California and we're going to build them for trucks as well as cars. Big truck manufacturers are looking at hydrogen almost as much as at batteries.

AS: There’s been a recent rush of money to the EV world, which was definitely not the case when you started on this topic in the 1980s. What do you think about the new financial landscape? Are you excited about it? Are you worried it's gonna blow up in our faces?

DS: Hype has its role. We as analysts and researchers like to criticize hype. But you need a certain amount of hype. It's kind of like as individuals, we need a certain amount of optimism, right? It's analogous to that. You don't want to let it get out of hand, of course, but if you don't have the hype, you don't see the investment, you don't see the commitment by electric utilities, local governments that permit charging stations, and so on .

A little anecdote on that from working with Mary Nichols, as a board member on CARB. I learned a lot of things from her, but one of the most important things I learned is that if you want to change things, you've got to put a stake in the ground, you've got to establish a really aggressive target, even if there's little hope of achieving it in the short term. Because it gets people thinking about it aspirationally. But it's also that any of these changes we're talking about require a coalescing of all kinds of institutions, all kinds of rules and practices. And if you don't get the attention of those people, and they don't start thinking about it in those organizations, it's not gonna happen.  It's a whole ecosystem that has to move together. I was always skeptical. I would roll my eyes, "Come on Mary." And she said, "no, this is how change happens." And she won me over. 

AS: So hype can help?

DS: Yes, but you don't want it to get too out of hand. I think that about automated vehicles, too. There was a huge amount of hype in 2015, 2016 around AVs. I highlighted that in my recent book. But at the end of the day, we’re ultimately going to see a transition to automated vehicles. Hype brings in investment and attracts more engineers. And that is what happened. The hype subsided beginning a few years ago with companies disappearing and investments shrinking. But it was a period of healthy retrenchment.  Now  it's moving forward. You see Cruise, Zoox, Waymo, and many others forging ahead. All of them are talking about running class 4 AVs in downtown San Francisco of all places.

AS: So quick question on EVs. Obviously, there's a tradeoff where EVs lower the marginal cost of driving because charging is so much cheaper than filling up. How much of a  problem is that? Is that just a tradeoff we have to work with?

DS: According to theory, lowering the cost of driving will increase the amount of driving. In this case, we refer to it as a rebound effect. It's the same rebound effect you get with fuel economy standards. You're lowering the operating cost. What that means is you need more policy measures to account for that incentive to drive more. The lesson is that you can't look at policies as standalone policies in isolation. There's got to be a suite of policies.  In California, we have a suite of government policies and actions and investments. We need policies that encourage pooled rides, micro mobility, transit partnerships with mobility companies, and more.

AS: There were a couple of sentences in the ZCAP that were positive on teleworking, but it seems like a lot of evidence indicates people actually drive more when they stay home from work. How do you think about telework as a climate mitigation strategy?

DS: Telework is fundamentally a good idea - and we’ll clearly see more of it. But the uptake is limited. Only some people and some employers, mostly with white collar workers, can take advantage of it. From an employer perspective, it looks attractive because they save money on office space, but there is considerable evidence that there are losses in productivity and creativity. It doesn’t work for many individuals either, even those with office jobs. They might have kids at home, they don't have high speed internet, they are easily distracted, and so on. So if you go down the list of why to be skeptical, you have that part. You have the part that it's largely a benefit that accrues to more well off workers. There's also some evidence that when people telecommute, their total VMT increases, or at least it doesn't decrease. One, because they've moved to a more remote area with longer trips for shopping, errands, and socializing, and also longer trips when they do go to work. And two because they're at home, they use the car during the day for more errands and social reasons. So, telecommuting is good for congestion, because it limits travel in congested areas at congested times, but less beneficial for reducing VMT and GHG emissions. 

AS: That's a good point. A lot of our transportation policy comes from ‘fighting congestion’, rather than addressing emissions. It's not just the AM peak or the PM peak that matters for emissions, every trip counts.

DS: If we're looking at it from an environmental prism, then congestion is not bad. Congestion might be good, right?

That last point is something I’m hoping to dive into in a future issue. But for now, the news. 

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Till Next Time,

Andrew