Transportation issues & climate change

Interview: Clean Vehicles Expert Jeremy Martin

Martin has a Ph.D. in chemistry and a minor in chemical engineering from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). He is a co-author of the 2016 report Fueling a Clean Transportation Future, which is a major source for the discussion in this podcast. EarthTalk’s Ethan Goffman interviewed him in Rockville, Maryland, where their discussion ranged from the impact of automobiles to surprising findings regarding corn ethanol to the transportation system of the future…


EarthTalk: What’s the current role of the transportation sector in climate change emissions?

Jeremy Martin: Historically, electricity generation and transportation have been the two biggest, with electricity being slightly larger than transportation. But just in the last few months, transportation emissions have risen, and look in the future as though they’ll be larger than electricity. And so this really highlights that we have some very good strategies to cut emissions in electricity generation: renewable energy, efficiency, phasing out coal, and transportation, you know we have some good strategies but we have a lot more work to do. That’s likely to be the most challenging sector to decarbonize going forward.

E: So electricity if anything has shrunk or at least leveled off, right?

Martin: Emissions from electricity have been falling and especially that’s been as coal generation has fallen.

E: Whereas transportation continues to rise?

Martin: Yes, I have sort of a detailed graph in a recent plot, of course there’s always ups and downs with the economy and things like that. So I would say transportation has sort of been flat and risen a little recently, and electricity is falling faster. So hopefully we can bring them both down and the question is how quickly, because to meet the targets, to stabilize the climate, with an increased temperature of less than two degrees C or better still one and a half degrees C is going to require very rapid reductions by 2050.

E: So we’re not doing badly but we need to do a lot better.

Martin: Yes, definitely, we’ve started to make some good progress but there’s a lot more work to do.

E: So besides climate change what are some other major environmental impacts from the transportation sector?

Martin: Well so of course transportation emissions are responsible for a lot of air pollution and that has a lot of health impacts. Especially, heavy duty trucks create a lot of local air pollution and health impacts. And of course the extraction of oil in particular has a lot of environmental problems in the places where it’s extracted and the transportation of oil. It often leads to a lot of environmental problems, some very famous ones, and so across the whole supply chain there are environmental challenges associated with oil production. We’ve focused primarily on climate, which is certainly the largest, most profound, most challenging of those, but there are many environmental problems. And not just environmental problems, our transportation system is responsible for a lot of negative impacts as well, from collisions to lack of exercise, all sorts of things about our transportation system that we could improve.

E: Right, so the whole system from extraction to burning the fuel has many side effects.

Martin: Right.

E: And we’ve had corn ethanol for about the last ten years, but some environmentalists have been critical, saying that if machinery and fertilizer and pesticides actually cause such great impacts that we really don’t get much environmental benefit out of it and that it’s driven up food prices. What’s your response to that?

Martin: You know, I’ve spent a lot of time studying that over the last few years. Really between 2005 and 2010 our fuel system went through a major change. And since 2010 about 10% of all the gasoline sold in the United States has been ethanol. And that change, especially the really rapid change—well, the food prices impacts were especially associated with the fact that we did that so quickly. We went from a very small amount of corn, a very small share of the corn crop being used to make fuel to that being the single largest use of corn and together with meat production accounting for the vast majority of the corn. And so the suddenness of the transition caused a large amount of problems. Prices have subsequently stabilized so I think that was as far as food prices were concerned it was more a function of how quickly it happened than the absolute scale. In terms of the net climate emissions, you know there’s been a lot of scientific discussion about the best way to measure that. And where we are now, the most recent estimate is that typical corn ethanol production is modestly less polluting than gasoline. But certainly there’s a lot of negative consequences. And it’s really the intensity at which we produce corn for whatever we use it for, for animal feed as well as for ethanol. And that has water pollution problems, it has erosion problems, all sorts of problems. So there’s a lot to do to improve our agricultural sector going forward. But I think one point that’s important is that, you know this transition happened between 2005 and 2010 for a variety of reason, but it doesn’t look like it’s a reversible transition. So it seems like these linkages between our agricultural system and our fuel system are here to stay. And so I think the more productive question is how do we mitigate these problems, how do we improve our agricultural system. And the sort of, was corn ethanol a good or bad idea, sort of the yes-no question, that’s really behind us now and so now I think we need to figure out how to improve both our food system and our agricultural system as we move forward.

E: Okay, so what are some of the big ideas for improving the agricultural system.

Martin: Well one of the big ideas is just what we grow, and so I think the single biggest challenge is the kind of intensity of focus on just two crops, corn and soybeans. And so that’s where in our report, the section on biofuels, we talked about making biofuels out of other things. Making biofuels out of waste products, but really in the long term making biofuels out of perennial grasses. And the reason for that is that our agricultural system really would improve a lot if we relied more on perennial grasses and less on corn and soybeans. So today our biofuels are made from corn and also from soybean oil, those are the two biggest sources, and so of course then they intensify the focus of the agricultural system on corn and soybeans. If we could diversify and incorporate perennials into our food system, we’d be doing ourselves a big favor in terms of erosion, in terms of water pollution, in terms of building soil carbon. And we could also produce some very low carbon fuel that way. And so when we think about how are we going to fix this system or fix both systems, make low carbon fuels and improve the sustainability of our agricultural system, the importance of perennials is key.

E: And those are ready, those alternative biofuels are ready for production now, or does the technology still need to move forward a little?

Martin: Well so the first of these commercial scale cellulosic biofuels—this is what we call when we another fuel out of the cellulose, the inedible fibrous part of the plant instead of the starches or vegetable oil, that cellulosic capacity has been scaled up, it’s operating at commercial scale in a couple facilities. And, you know, there’s more than a hundred corn ethanol facilities. And so it is at commercial scale in a couple of facilities, but of course for it become the major source of fuel we need lots more of those facilities. And so, we’ve really come a long way in the last decade in terms of bringing that technology of out university labs to scale-up project pilots and now to the first commercial scale facilities. But clearly this is a very big industry and so to have an impact we need to keep scaling that up.

E: Okay, so almost ready and we just need to make it more widespread.

Martin: Yes, you know people often say it’s always five years away and I guess that’s because our time horizon’s five years. So, we’ve made a lot of progress in the last five years, we’ll need to make more in the next five years, and we won’t be done then.

E: But we’ve seen explosions in the amount of wind and sun.

Martin: Yes, that’s right. But those weren’t in the laboratory five years ago, right. They we’re already large industries five years ago, they’re much larger now, and they should be larger than that five years hence. So steady growth is what we need. We’ve seen important progress, but we’re not in the middle of steady growth for these kinds of advanced biofuels now. And so we need to accelerate that and make more progress than we have in the last couple years.

E: Okay, great. Turning to electric cars, which some people see as the real long solution, especially if they’re powered by renewables. But people also worry about “range anxiety,” that the cars won’t get them where they need and it takes hours to refuel. So how viable do you see the move to electric cars and how fast do you see them being ready to pretty much take over our transportation system?

Martin: Electric cars of course are on the road today growing rapidly, but not dissimilar to what we were talking about with the fuel protection, even rapid growth to reach the scale of our vehicle fleet is going to take time. As far as range anxiety, we’ve done a lot, my colleagues have done a lot of work in this area. We’ve done a lot of surveys to look at what’s the range that’s necessary for most drivers. And what we found is that, in a survey we did with Consumer’s Union in 2013, 69% of the respondents drove less than 60 miles on an average day. And so, the vehicles that are on the road today can serve their needs most of the time. And vehicles coming on line next, vehicles like the Chevy Volt, the Tesla model 3, are kind of more affordable vehicles with range up to 200 miles. And so electric vehicles can serve a significant range of the population now, but not everybody. But as electric vehicles mature and improve, they’ll serve more and more people. And of course there are plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, which can operate on electricity for those typical trips that you make most days and when you need a longer range can also run on gasoline. So there’s a variety of solutions; I don’t think range limitations are a fundamental concern. The other thing is of course we’re steadily building out more recharging infrastructure and so that can mitigate this challenge as well. And so I think it’s clear that the long term solution for transportation is electric vehicles, low carbon electricity, especially renewable electricity. And we need to move as fast as we can to address this, to support this transition because really that’s going to be required to meet the deep decarbonization that we need by the middle of the century and it’s going to take decades to replace the whole fleet. So we need to move as quickly as we can now.

E: So we are getting started but maybe too slowly.

Martin: Yes, well I mean we always should be going faster than we are, but I think there’s a lot of signs of progress. But you know it’s important for policy makers to maintain support. And some of the surveys we’ve done, electric vehicles have sold much better in California than other states. One of the things that we’ve found is that electric vehicles aren’t available on lots in a lot of other states. There’s always the question of, are consumers choosing not to buy electric vehicles or do they not really understand that choice. And so I think that’s always another thing, sort of education, making sure vehicles are available, making sure that they understand whether they’ll work for them is an important part of keeping this progress going.

E: Right, so you’ve got the consumer side but you’ve also got the education, advertisement, availability side.

Martin: Right.

E: But there are some environmentalists who think that the individual automobile might be a dead end because it depends on a road network, parking, that all has its own impacts like runoff and habitat fragmentation, and when you’re adding a billion Chinese to the market worldwide, it’s not that viable to keep depending on cars even if they’re electric. How do you respond to that?

Martin: Well, the way that I think about that is, clearly we started the conversation by how large a part of the problem the transportation sector is. And to address that we’re going to need to make changes to the vehicles, making existing vehicles more efficient, existing technologies more efficient, and moving as fast as we can to electric vehicles. We’re going to need to address that in the fuels, making all the fuels cleaner, moving the electricity toward renewable electricity, moving the biofuels toward cleaner more sustainable versions of biofuels, and making sure the oil doesn’t get any dirtier, that’s a major subject of our recent report is how we can make sure that oil doesn’t get dirtier. But we certainly need to transform the transportation system. And I think there’s a lot of enthusiasm and excitement right now that a system which has really been quite static since the post-World War II years is starting to change. And we’re looking for more changes in this system, how we get around, how we move goods, in the next decade than we’ve seen in the last fifty years. And so I think the opportunity to address some of those fundamental challenges, how much space cars take up when they’re parked, how much the road network interferes with our ability to get around by foot or by bike or whatever, the opportunities to really transform our transportation system by changing the way we drive by changing the we own, the business models, by sharing transportation mode rather than relying on single ownership of a private car, you know all of these things are starting to shift and I think that’s a great opportunity, a reason for optimism, but also a reason to focus on making sure those shifts move us in the right direction.

E: Okay, so do you see public transit such as bus and rail as a major and growing component of the future transit system, or is it going to be more kind of Uber and car sharing and once you get driverless you order up your own vehicle to get you where you want, or some combination of the two?

Martin: Well, I think it’s, my expectation is it’ll certainly be different combinations than we see today. I think the clearest thing is that the system’s going to look quite different. And so, I guess rather than thinking of, is it going to be cars or is it going to be buses, I think we may have all kinds of different arrangements and the important component in a way is whether those vehicles are shared or single use, whether they’re electric or powered by oil, whether they provide mobility in a kind of equitable way so that all communities can access what they need and whether they improve health and safety outcomes. So those broad goals are clear and the detailed configurations, and in particular things like which company’s name is going to be on the bill or on the side of the vehicle, that’ll sort itself out. But the goals and the principles that define a cleaner, more equitable, safer transportation system, I think those are what we need to focus on.

E: Great. Okay, great. Thank you very much.

Martin: Yes, my pleasure. Thank you for the opportunity.

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