On the Rocky Road to Zero Emissions, Make Room for the Hummer EV

For those who don’t remember, the first incarnation of the Hummer, a line of trucks and SUVs sold by General Motors from 1992 to 2008, represented perhaps the fullest expression of the term “car culture” — enormous, expensive, gas-guzzling, and made famous by wars in the Middle East.

The GMC Hummer EV, the rebooted version of the brand revealed last week, preserves most of those elements. It’s enormous and expensive, but it uses battery power in place of gasoline. The company says that the massive vehicle, which is racing the rival Tesla Cybertruck and others to the nascent e-pickup market, “reimagines an instantly-recognizable silhouette for a modern, all-electric future.” Could a $100,000 electric supertruck convince skeptical SUV fans to give up on internal combustion and thus speed the decarbonization of transportation? Or is it the worst kind of greenwashing? 

In truth, many published plans to decarbonize the economy effectively follow the Hummer EV’s just-electrify-it model: Americans can keep driving the way we do, but our increasingly large cars and SUVs would be converted to electric drive, and that electricity would be generated by a growing supply of renewable power. The argument is that we won’t need to change our lifestyles to get to zero emissions. Given the controversy that greets suggestions that Americans transition away from gas-powered vehicles, being able to tiptoe past the War on Cars rhetoric has obvious appeal. 

But many others aren’t convinced we can bring climate change under control without fundamentally changing our relationship with cars. In this view, electrification, while an improvement, does not solve the problems of the current system. They point out that EVs produce more carbon dioxide in their manufacture than internal combustion engine vehicles, though they emit less while they operate. They highlight that automotive infrastructure like highways and parking is itself an enormous contributor to climate change. EVs would also leave other byproducts of automobility untouched, from the traffic fatalities that kill more than 38,000 people per year to the marginalization of non-driving populations. If decarbonization gives us a chance for fundamental change, we shouldn’t let it slip away.

Last year, when I was a Loeb fellow at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, I tried to answer one question — how could we rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation? The sector is now the largest source of emissions in the U.S.; we’ll need to bring them to zero by mid-century to meet the goals enshrined in the Paris agreement. I found a fierce debate simmering just below the surface of the transportation world on how we’ll get there. Different ideas compete for funding and attention, from boosting urban density and expanding transit to embracing micromobility. A new presidential administration could finally open the door to a dramatic expansion of funding for initiatives to decarbonize transportation. Many working on this problem recognize that getting their solution prioritized at this time may be key to its future. 

So, what is the answer? How should those of us focused on climate change mitigation understand the role the Hummer EV — or any EV — plays in transport decarbonization?

The truth is, it’s hard to answer that question without knowing more about your region’s path to zero emissions. Too few government agencies have put together plans that include both long-term emission reduction goals and detailed short-term actions. Los Angeles’s Green New Deal is an exception. That plan outlines a scenario where, over the next several decades, uptake of both electric vehicles and a dramatic expansion of alternatives to the car will combine to bring emissions to zero. Other cities or regions might lean more or less heavily on one or the other strategy

In general, though, we have a situation where too few inside or outside government understand the set of actions necessary to get us to zero-emission transportation. This makes it easy to have passionate arguments — EVs are bad! EVs are good! — without making the compromises necessary to chart a path to zero. Even city leaders who’ve pledged to meet climate targets sometimes expand highway capacity in ways that make it hard to imagine meeting their goals.

Last year I put together a spreadsheet exercise for the Boston metro area that allowed participants to chart their own pathways to a zero-emission future. It helped make obvious that even the most optimistic version of any one chosen strategy is likely unable to meet our goals on its own. It also helped open some eyes. Many EV skeptics coming into our workshops had not fully appreciated the recent dramatic decline in renewable electric power costs, making the potential for a fully renewable-fueled grid more plausible than in the past. And many climate and energy advocates looking at transportation for the first time didn’t realize how land use and transportation policy lock Americans into high-energy lifestyles, or the myriad ways our transportation challenges are intertwined with so many other pressing social issues.

No two cities or states are likely to have the same path to zero emissions. In some areas, you could imagine vehicles like the Hummer EV helping convince recalcitrant car lovers to get behind decarbonization, providing a missing piece to a comprehensive strategy. Other areas might pursue a dramatically different strategy: banning large SUVs altogether, to allow you to safely turn over more street space to active and public transportation. What we need is a more informed debate and more fully fleshed out decarbonization plans to give us the space to have a meaningful conversation. On one thing, at least, we should all agree: There is no longer any time to waste. 

Andrew Salzberg is the creator of the Decarbonizing Transportation newsletter and leads public policy for Transit. He previously served as director of Transportation Policy for Uber.

Source: Read Full Article