Climate Leadership Conference: Decarbonizing Transportation, One Electric SUV At A Time?

Alberto Giron asks a question about how automakers are negotiating the tricky and inconvenient reality that many Americans live in apartment buildings that are wholly unequipped to handle electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

One recurring theme at last week’s Climate Leadership Conference was the topic of decarbonizing the transportation sector. Transportation accounts for nearly a third of domestic carbon footprint. This includes everything from freight trains to semi trucks to– you guessed it- the big, bad, single occupant motorcar. Decarbonization is a huge goal. So, too, is it a noble goal, and it has important, positive implications.

It is also an opportunity for us to reëxamine our preoccupation with the automobile.

As my upcoming piece on industrial development in the Mississippi River Delta will explore in greater detail, the shift in shares of this energy pie is a complicated thing. An electric vehicle, for example, might indirectly generate carbon dioxide if it were charged from power created by burning fossil fuels, for example. Detractors of electric vehicles make this point (even though most EV’s are more than twice as efficient as ICEV’s from a thermodynamic standpoint– but that’s a separate story).


The environmental footprint of internal combustion engines encompasses 1) carbon dioxide and heavier, more destructive gases emitted at the primary source of production, 2) CO2 and particulates generated in the refining of oil into gasoline and other distillates, 3) CO2 generated from the transportation of that fuel to the end user, and 4) CO2 and other pollutants generated by the end users of the internal combustion engines themselves (i.e. cars). A carbon tax could substantially simplify the process of regulation by disincentivizing carbon-intensive processes closer to their source.

Similarly, a freight train produces carbon dioxide from burning diesel fuel. It also delivers coal to a power plant, which also produces carbon. It might, however, deliver electric cars from a solar-powered plant. In climate change mitigation lingo, these are referred to as Scope 1, Scope 2, and Scope 3 emissions.

Such complexities are the reason why many policymakers have proposed a national carbon tax as they have in Canada. Costs would be passed through the value chain and marginal increases would serve as a disincentive to carbon-intensive processes. This could substantially streamline the myriad of costly state and local regulatory efforts while returning most of the benefit to consumers and businesses.

GM and Ford have pushed for a carbon tax with the CLC in the past. It’s unclear how much effort they’re putting behind it these days.

One thing they’re not doing, though? Examining alternatives to the single-occupant vehicle. More on this in a moment.


One panel at the Climate Leadership Conference included James Bradbury from the Georgetown Climate Center, Tom Van Heeke (and loyal Handbuilt supporter) from General Motors, Jon Coleman from Ford Smart Mobility, and Sue Gander from the Electrification Coalition.

Bradbury presented on the Transportation Climate Initiative, a collaborative of states and local governments in the congested (though transit-heavy) northeast. The TCI is focused on coordinating resources to reduce the carbon emissions of the transportation sector within the regional footprint. Efforts will include infrastructure improvement (better transit connectivity, bike lanes, accessibility improvements), operating investments (electric buses), and more.

Immediate, transportation-related benefits would include reducing congestion, which costs the economy hundreds of billions of dollars a year. This would in turn reduce pollution. Coordination of transit investment means better connectivity, lower costs to riders, and lower costs for development. As I’ve mentioned in The Business Case For Transit, this is pretty tangible if you weigh a few hundred dollars a year in infrastructure investment against the several thousand dollars per year required for car ownership.

It is not coincidental that the northeast is the most densely populated single region of the United States, home to (within TCI’s footprint) 72 million people. It is also the lone part of the country where Amtrak actually turns a profit– and a respectable one, too (though it is making huge strides in other regions, too). Density works! So does investment in infrastructure, something we in the Midwest could spend some more time thinking about.

Beyond direct benefits, the TCI touts and estimated billions of dollars in healthcare savings from proposals to improve air quality, echoing the same comments from my interview with Carla Frisch from the Rocky Mountain Institute.

If you’re in an AV and you’re stuck in traffic, you’re still stuck in traffic. If you’re in a connected car, you may be able to watch Game of Thrones, but you’re still stuck in traffic.

Decarbonizing transportation will not only require moving away from reliance on internal combustion vehicles. It will also require a shift away from single-occupant vehicles in general.


Sue Gander, presenting on her efforts with the Electrification Coalition, was focused on the decarbonization of mobility starting with the automobile itself. While the EC’s fundamentals seem to have been prepared thinking about the 2008 oil bubble, the points about vehicle electrification are perhaps best understood in terms of their implications for the power grid– and cities- at large.

Gander says that the EV market is just now slowly pushing past price parity with ICEV’s (meaning they’re just beginning to be cost-competitive). Though this will be challenged greatly by the current collapse in global oil prices.

If you think about it, our process of extracting oil from the ground, transporting it to a refinery, refining it, transporting it to a gas station, and then filling a car’s tank– is awfully cumbersome. Compare that with the idea of plugging in an electric vehicle. If power generation is increasingly green, there’s a major value proposition there from a climate standpoint.

Of course, our local generation mix isn’t terribly green (hey, DTE!). Beyond that? Our power grid can’t handle a completely electrified transportation network– yet. Many homes in Detroit, for example, still have their original 60-amp electrical service. If you, like us, have an electric dryer, an electric stove, and air conditioning– and want to install an electric charger, you might be pushing it to fit into even 200 amps. You certainly can’t do it on 100.

Scope 1 emissions would include gas burned to heat the Renaissance Center, headquarters of GM, pictured here. Scope 1 emissions would also include emissions from trains on these tracks. Scope 2 emissions would include electricity used in the Renaissance Center or in maintenance facilities of the railroad. Scope 3 emissions, the most abstract, are emissions produced farther down the value chain– indirectly as a product of the activities of the owner or operator of whatever assets.


The good news for the consumer is the same good news for the utility. Grids can be modernized from the inside out and from the outside in. Utilities improving the resilience of local power grid infrastructure means it’s better-suited to deal with things like distributed solar. Homeowners installing solar and even battery storage systems means that not only can they sell power back to the grid, they can also store it when they need to.

Combining this with realtime pricing, it’s conceivable that we could figure out a comprehensive set of systems that would help normalize electrical generation demand and supply– sort of the holy grail of utility planning. DTE is sort of talking about some of these things.

But they aren’t exactly leading the charge. GM and Ford aren’t leading the charge, either, and though I’m personally pretty disappointed with all three companies for completely blowing off the opportunity to push RTA efforts forward, we shouldn’t just write off any and all incremental improvements because we should be thinking about what we can accomplish.

Responding to a question about what the automakers are doing to influence systemic change, Ford’s Jon Coleman perhaps said it best when he said that “we’re gonna focus on the metal box on wheels, because that’s what we do really well. I’m not really happy with that answer, because any time we stretch out into someone else’s space, we learn how much we don’t know, and it’s a painful lesson each time.” In spite of this cautious approach and aversion to vertically integrating or in-sourcing these novel technologies, both Coleman and Van Heeke pointed out the ability of their respective companies to partner with vendors to implement new tech.

In B-school, we talk about the idea of “outsourcing innovation.” Large companies lose organizational brain cells as they get bigger, but they have more capital. And capital moves faster than organizational politics. So, it’s possible for companies like Ford or GM to contract with smaller, more nimble companies to implement these novel technologies or systems, or even buy these companies. Ford’s and GM’s respective investments in Rivian and Lyft are great examples.

So, some opportunities here for major grid improvements. Even if they start with cars, they don’t have to end with cars. My takeaway was that no one on this public panel was willing to get out and talk about how great fixed-route transit is. It’s unsexy. And, let’s face it- we’re pretty bad at transit in general in these United States. That doesn’t mean that we should despair, though.

James Bradbury ended on a cautionary note about the hype around AV’s and EV’s. He said: “There’s [a mentality that] somehow, if we get more technology, it will set us free. Unfortunately, I’m here to burst that bubble. If you’re in an AV and you’re stuck in traffic, you’re still stuck in traffic. If you’re in a connected car, you may be able to watch Game of Thrones, but you’re still stuck in traffic […] we need to focus on putting more people into fewer vehicles.”

Policy analyst and Handbuilt City supporter Tom Van Heeke from GM (right) talks about the policy, regulation, and implementation of decarbonized mobility solutions on a panel with James Bradbury of the Georgetown Climate Center, which facilitates the TCI, Jon Coleman of Ford, and Sue Gander of the Electrification Coalition.


At the closing plenary, a keynote from Senator Debbie Stabenow spoke about the threats to Michigan from climate change. The state borders an abundant hydrological ecosystem that is home to 20% of the world’s fresh water, while a rich agricultural economy in Michigan complements an enduring industrial legacy. So, it makes sense to paint a portrait of the state as a sensible leader on climate change mitigation (which– let’s agree- it’s not at the moment).

Interestingly, but unsurprisingly, Stabenow’s address did not once mention transit infrastructure. This complemented takeaways from yesterday’s panel on decarbonization of transportation, where not a single mention was made of fixed route infrastructure. (Senator Stabenow’s office did not respond to a request for comment).

To be sure, transit is a difficult thing to talk about during a presidential administration that has been pretty hostile to it. But it shouldn’t be a difficult conversation to have with the Big Two and a Half automakers in Detroit. Nor should it be hard with other corporate stakeholders who, at least, gesturally, recognize Metro Detroit’s underdeveloped infrastructure as a major hindrance to talent attraction and retention.

Senator Stabenow was followed up with a talk from Kathleen Theoharides, Secretary of the Executive Office of Energy and Environment with the State of Massachussetts. In contrast, Theoharides– who is half Stabenow’s age- did mention transit, highlighting more details from the Transportation Climate Initiative mentioned in Thursday afternoon’s session.

The younger generation’s warm embrace of public transit as a path toward decarbonization and stronger economies seems to separate it from the boomer generation, which remains, forever and ever amen, fixated on selling trucks, trucks trucks. Electric trucks? Sure, maybe. But single-occupant vehicles, either way.

Perhaps there is hope yet. But still, apparently not much in Michigan, where recent failure of transit-friendly bills to make it through the Republican legislature suggest that we have a long way to go. And, while SUV’s aren’t going to decarbonize the economy, the conversation about electrification is not only important, it’s also setting the stage for more important conversations to come.

(This is part of a series of articles on the Climate Leadership Conference that took place in Detroit, March 4-6, 2020. The first article sets the stage for the conference through an opening workshop– and a demonstration. Another article discusses practical solutions for climate change by way of energy finance programs. I also interviewed Carla Frisch from RMI on America’s Pledge. Despite my shoutout to GM’s Tom Van Heeke, his support of The Handbuilt City does not imply any endorsement of Handbuilt by General Motors or its affiliates.)

Nat Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP is a city planner, community development professional, and MBA candidate at American University's Kogod School of Business, based in Detroit.

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