Electric cars vs. fewer cars?

by Nina Ignaczak

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Cars and trucks account for nearly a third of greenhouse gas emissions — and there are only so many ways to reduce those emissions to mitigate climate change: cleaner cars, cleaner fuels, and less driving.

But in a state whose economy is so dependent on the automobile sector, the tradeoff between electrifying cars and reducing driving altogether is high-stakes. Figuring out how to strike that balance in Michigan is a key part of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer administration’s climate planning effort, with recommendations released this month by a state workgroup on transportation and mobility.

The report notes that embracing electric vehicles is insufficient to make a real dent in greenhouse gas emissions and advocates more state planning around transit, but stops short of recommending less personal driving. While “electrification is the key new technology that experts agree is needed to meet any 2050 reduction goals for the sector, it also can’t get us there on its own, especially in the near-term,” the report states.

Greenhouse gas emissions by sector. Source: Environmental Protection Agency.

Whitmer has tasked state government with addressing climate change since she took office. In February 2019 and again in September 2020, she issued executive orders directing state departments to act to “Implement policies that advance the goals of the Paris Agreement, aiming to reduce greenhouse gas emission by at least 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.”

Then in February 2021, Whitmer appointed a panel of experts to a Council on Climate Solutions to develop recommendations for a MI Healthy Climate Plan. In addition to the transportation workgroup, other workgroups included Energy Production, Transmission, Distribution, and Storage, Building and Housing, Natural Working Lands and Forest Products, and Energy Intensive Industries.

According to meeting documents, 108 individuals participated in these workgroups. About a third of those represented nonprofit advocacy groups and 17% represented industry. The workgroups are wrapping up their recommendations now and plan to issue a document for public comment early next year.

Breakdown of workgroup participants, according to state documents.

A ‘healthy tension’ between electric vehicles and reducing driving

The transportation workgroup ended up structuring itself around the tension between clean cars and less cars. According to the report, participants broke into two separate subgroups: one focused on vehicle electrification and low-carbon fuels, and the other on strategies for reducing vehicle miles traveled (VMT).

“I feel in the end it was a healthy tension because they're kind of two different strategies, but they're both aimed ultimately at the same thing — to try to reduce the environmental and climate impacts,” Charles Griffith, the workgroup co-chair, told Michigan Climate News. Griffith serves as director of the climate & energy program at the nonprofit advocacy group Ecology Center. “I'm sure that that tension will continue because as you pick your strategies; there'll be louder voices on one set of them versus the other,” he said.

Griffith chaired the sub-group on VMT reduction and Judson Herzer, policy director for the state Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity and the Office of Future Mobility and Electrification, chaired the group on electrification and clean fuels.


In the end, three of the top five recommendations came from the electrification group and two from the VMT group. The first three of the group’s top five items include establishing a comprehensive plan to electrify all aspects of the transportation sector, establishing electric vehicle (EV) purchase incentives for consumers, and adopting a clean fuels standard to reduce pollution from gasoline.

The other two recommendations address reducing car travel itself. They include developing greenhouse gas budgets for transportation plans and expanding access to convenient, zero-emission public transit.

According to one analysis, EVs are insufficient to lead to reduced carbon emissions in the transport sector because they rely on electric power utilities to incorporate clean energy — and that is happening slowly. Without an overhaul of the utility industry, more electric vehicles might even increase pollution in the short term.

The tension between electric cars and less driving is also reflected at the federal level, with the Biden administration placing a heavy emphasis on electrification and a more subdued focus on prioritizing non-motorized transportation.

A workaround to reduce driving

Reducing miles driven outright didn’t appear in the workgroup’s recommendations. The idea of explicitly stating a goal to reduce VMT — something states like California and Minnesota are moving toward — was “too scary” for the workgroup, according to Megan Owens, a member of the workgroup and executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Transportation Riders United. Some workgroup members noted that VMT is often used as a measure of economic health — and so reducing VMT might send a signal that the economy is declining, according to Owens.

So the group worked toward a parallel concept that is being tried in Colorado — placing a cap on GHG from the transportation sector to effectively reduce VMT without using that term. The proposal would require state and local transportation agencies to frame their five-year transportation plans around a GHG reduction target, with a cap that would decline over time.

That approach would require the state, likely via rulemaking by either Environment, Great Lakes & Energy (EGLE), or the Michigan Transportation Commission, to set a GHG budget standard for the state’s transportation sector. State and local road agencies would then need to prove that their plans comply or risk losing state funding for projects.

According to Owens, more workgroup members were able to get behind the greenhouse gas budget approach.

“Trying to decrease driving sounded too much like limiting people's ability to drive,” she said. “[The GHG budget] seemed like a slightly less threatening way to accomplish the same goal.”

A strategy dependent on transportation planning overhaul

Under such a scheme, transportation projects that would increase VMT could be ineligible for funding unless they mitigate elsewhere through projects like transit projects, bike, and pedestrian facilities, carpooling, designated high-occupancy vehicle lanes, alternative mobility options, and increased density. But implementing a GHG budget approach “will not be an easy administrative feat,” according to the plan.

Michigan Department of Transportation’s most recent 2045 long-range plan does very little to address GHG emissions, Owens points out. While the plan outlines an equitable, multimodal framework, the term “greenhouse gas” is mentioned only twice in the 142-page document, and the plan does not address reducing vehicle miles traveled.

“While it provides a beautiful vision statement for the future, it largely ignores the climate crisis — which transportation is the largest contributor to,” Owens said. “It also provides few measurable commitments of how they'll achieve the equitable multimodal future they envision.”

But according to Brad Sharlow, supervisor for transportation planning for MDOT, the plan represents a “huge step forward.” Prior MDOT long-range plans focused on planning and maintenance for state-owned infrastructure only. In contrast, the 2045 plan incorporated a statewide transit strategy as well as planning for freight and rail transportation.

“You'll see a multimodal focus and… resilience as a key factor for sustainability, and promoting choices for other modes of transportation,” Sharlow said. “We even have a strategy that looks at recommending options to reduce single-occupancy vehicle usage long-term.” The plan also calls for developing a climate vulnerability assessment, he added.

While Sharlow acknowledges the MDOT plan does not explicitly address VMT or GHG targets, he noted that the plan does identify opportunities for “right-sizing” roads to reduce lanes.

“Frankly, if there's less capacity [on roads], maybe people won't drive as much,” he said. Sharlow also noted that MDOT closely follows the Council for Climate Solutions’ work and will likely reference it in future plans. He also noted that MDOT’s funding and authority limit what it can reasonably accomplish alone — and that many transportation decisions are made by local road and transit agencies.

Other strategies to reduce VMT and a focus on equity

According to the transportation workgroup’s report, the top five recommendations were selected based on their ability to “have the biggest impact on reducing GHGs while also promoting equitable outcomes that help resolve historical disparities.”

But the eight other recommendations included in the plan are important as well, Griffith pointed out. And many of them may be easier to implement, like changing state building codes to ensure that all new buildings and parking areas are pre-wired for electric vehicle charging infrastructure and repurposing federal congestion mitigation funds to favor projects that reduce VMT.

Owens, who wrote the fifth recommendation on expanding access to public transit, noted that action is crucial for achieving the governor’s goal of incorporating equity into the state’s climate plan.

“I hope that this recommendation, assuming it does get into the plan, is able to jumpstart some of that work; to say okay, the governor now has specifically told us we need to understand who has access to transit where, and we need to look at what would it take to expand that. And at least start planning out how to expand access,” she said.

According to EGLE spokesperson Hugh McDiarmid, the public can submit comment on the recommendations at EGLE-TransportMobilityClimate@Michigan.gov.

EGLE staff will weave the recommendations based on the feedback it receives into the draft MI Healthy Climate Plan, which it expects to release by January. After an opportunity for public comment, EGLE will finalize the plan and present it to the Governor.


What questions do you have about the environment and climate change in Michigan? Please let us know by reaching out to me at nina@planetdetroit.org. NOTE: Please don't reply to this email, it will go into a digital netherworld, never to be seen again. We hope that changes soon!


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