Cleaning Up North Carolina’s Transportation Sector

It’s all hands-on deck to address carbon emissions from North Carolina’s transportation sector and meet the goals of Governor Cooper’s Executive Order 80. A recent study from RTI International, funded by NRDC and the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), analyzed four potential transportation scenarios to help the Tar Heel State achieve its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 40% below 2005 levels by 2025.

The main takeaway from the report is that there is no single policy that will achieve the needed reductions. Instead, we must implement multiple strategies that would combine to tackle transportation sector emissions.

The transportation sector now accounts for approximately one third of greenhouse gas emissions in North Carolina and it is set to soon become the highest source of climate causing pollution. To meet its 2025 goals, the state must reduce emissions by 7.9 million metric tons. With the suite of scenarios and policies outlined in this report, the state can achieve this goal.

The RTI report also considers transportation equity to ensure that those most adversely affected by polluting emissions will experience the benefits of a cleaner transportation system. RTI modeled a variety of scenarios to help the state reduce emissions in the transportation sector, and also recommended policy pathways for each:

  • Reducing total vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by light duty vehicles by 10% by 2025
  • Shifting 1% of light duty vehicles by 2025
  • Accelerating battery electric vehicle sales to 20% by 2025
  • Achieving a fuel economy of 54.5 miles per gallon of new light duty vehicles by 2025

The modeling shows that North Carolina needs to adopt a range of transportation policies to reduce emissions rapidly. Implementing all four of the modeled scenarios would reduce emissions by over 6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide by 2025, almost meeting the current projected emissions gap. However, the state needs to act fast, given these scenarios can take time to implement.

Cutting vehicle miles traveled garnered the highest emissions reductions in this analysis, as this scenario would equate to taking over 750,000 vehicles off the roads. However, a large suite of policies and programs would need to be realized not only by the state, but by employers and business to encourage telework and to change zoning and land use planning. Some North Carolinians may also be unable to reduce their vehicle miles traveled due to their line of work, cost of living expenses, childcare needs, etc.

Increased transit usage, another scenario modeled in the report, would drive vehicle miles traveled down while also providing clean transportation options for North Carolinians that do not have access to a car. Electrifying transit buses would further reduce emissions and cut lifetime bus operation and maintenance costs for fleets.

In addition to North Carolina’s greenhouse gas reduction goal, the state also hopes to have 80,000 electric vehicles on the road by 2025. However, as the report shows, a much more ambitious target is achievable and needed. The state is already set eclipse 80,000 electric vehicles under a business as usual scenario. Electric vehicles have tangible benefits like reducing air pollution and improving health. Additionally, as more electric vehicles models enter the market, battery prices continue to decrease, and the used vehicle market increases, these vehicles are becoming obtainable for all North Carolinians, no matter their driving needs.

North Carolina can further stimulate the electric vehicle market by providing incentives to reduce their upfront cost, increase the number of electric vehicle charging stations, and consider utility policies to further reduce fueling costs, such as through time of use rates.

While the federal government attempts to roll back fuel economy standards, the RTI report indicates that increasing fuel economy to 54.5 miles per gallon—the original 2025 target—would decrease emissions from the transportation sector, while also saving North Carolinians money at the pump.

No single policy or scenario can close the transportation emissions gap needed for North Carolina to achieve its greenhouse gas reduction goals. Therefore, the state needs to look at a portfolio of transportation polices both statewide and in the region. As 2025 is fast approaching, the Tar Heel state should use 2020 as the year to transform the transportation sector and make it cleaner and equitable for all citizens.