Changing the Transportation Climate in Maryland and Beyond Strong New Statewide Measures Could Have Ripple Effects Across the United States

That horde of cars, trucks, buses, and motorcycles that trap so many of us on our daily commute is not just a personal aggravation; it harms the planet.

Transportation is now the number one cause of U.S. climate-change emissions, accounting for 28.5% of emissions in 2016 according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Maryland emissions
Sierra Club members at the Maryland Commission on Climate Change transportation forum.

Lindsey Mendelson of the Maryland Sierra Club’s Transportation for All Campaign is leading the campaign to bring strong new measures to Maryland restricting transportation emissions. (Full disclosure: the author is a long-time Sierra Club member and former transit chair in Montgomery County, Maryland.) In the low-lying coastal state, “floods are getting worse,” Mendelson points out, notably in Ellicott City, which declared flash emergencies in 2016 and 2018.

Car emissions are harmful beyond the climate, adds Mendelson, exacerbating “neurological problems, reproductive problems, [and] respiratory illnesses,” including asthma. A new report even links diabetes to pollution from autos.

While attempts to reduce climate-change emissions from energy have been relatively successful, the same cannot be said for transportation. With the federal government refusing to even acknowledge climate change, it is up to the states to step in.

Over the past decade or so, a collection of ten East Coast states from Maryland to Maine, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), has acted to reduce energy emissions. Now, the Sierra Club and other organizations are pushing these states to act on transportation.

Existing fuel economy standards and other measures should achieve a 29% reduction of climate change gases by 2030 according to a Georgetown Climate Center report, but that is far from enough. Much stronger measure are needed to achieve at least a 40% reduction by 2030, as called for by the Paris agreement.

Perhaps the best way to meet strong transportation targets is the same method that RGGI uses for energy: cap and invest. In this system, “states sell nearly all emission allowances through auctions and invest proceeds in energy efficiency, renewable energy, and other consumer benefit programs,” according to the Georgetown report.

For transportation, this would mean setting a maximum amount of emissions through allowance on the use of fossil fuel, and buying and selling credits for such fuel. This a market-based mechanism could draw support from conservatives, while many environmentalists agree that cap and invest is the most efficient means for limiting pollution.

The cap, though, is only one part of the equation and by itself would be insufficient. Without better options, dependence on automobiles will continue. Auctioning credits would provide “a pot of money for the type of transportation systems that we’d like to see,” says Mendelson.

Money raised from cap-and-invest would go to a range of emission saving methods, such as public transportation and electric vehicles. Making communities more walkable and bikeable is another high priority. The idea is to make it easier for individuals to reduce solo gasoline powered car trips.

Cap and invest also sends a clear “market signal” to companies about where to invest, points out James Bradbury, the Mitigation Program Director for the Georgetown Climate Center. For instance, he elaborates, companies may realize the wisdom of investing in zero emission vehicles (ZEVs), since they will be an important part of fulfilling the mandated reduction in transportation emissions.

The money raised can then enable government to further invest in ZEV buses and government vehicles, as well as in infrastructure such as charging stations. Cap and invest starts the ball rolling toward systemic change and, as the cap shrinks over years and decades, provides forward momentum.

One state alone, however, is limited in what it can do. Bradbury points out that an alliance of states can achieve economies of scale in the way companies invest and can coordinate, for instance with major highways that cross state lines. This is what RGGI has done with energy; a similar alliance is being built to limit transportation emissions. However, this depends on states actually signing on to the program.

Located near Washington, DC and prominent in the national news, little Maryland could play a big role in reducing climate emissions through strong action on transportation. The state has already been a leader in offshore wind and in setting targets for energy emission reduction.

Seven states, Maryland among them, are taking public input on climate and transportation, including the possibility of a cap and invest scheme. With the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC—critical to the state’s economy—among the most traffic-congested in the nation, expectations should be high.

The Maryland Sierra Club is asking the state for “to make a firm commitment to reduce carbon emissions” for transportation “an additional 30% by 2030,” says Mendelson.

The push to sign on is just beginning. A June 27th forum of the Maryland Commission on Climate Change discussed ways of moving forward. Members of the Maryland Sierra Club showed up in force and testified about the profound need to alter our transportation to help not just the climate but our air, land and water. Speakers also testified to the health benefits of walking and biking.

One key theme was that poor and minority communities, most subject to, for instance, asthma exacerbated by dirty air, might stand to benefit the most. “Lower income communities and communities of color are often overlooked for new investments in projects like public transit,” says Mendelson. These are the very neighborhoods that often “live near hot boxes for pollution, near highways” and industrial sites.

Recently, however, Maryland governor Larry Hogan announced a $9 billion transportation initiative to widen many of Maryland’s roads. While this may relieve congestion temporarily, it will only worsen the emissions situation. And the plan adds no new public transit.

“The Maryland Chapter is vehemently opposed to the highway expansion project,” says Mendelson, which “would induce driving demand meaning more cars on the road, more congestion, and more pollution–especially for neighborhoods along the route.”

Still, there is hope. At the transportation and climate forum, Ben Grumbles, Maryland’s Secretary of the Environment, stated that the administration planned for “robust participation from Maryland in the transportation and climate initiative.” He added that the governor will “push back hard on the Trump administration’s proposed rollbacks to the clean car rules and the clean air act.”

The question is whether strong action will follow. The state Sierra Club would “like Maryland to do more, to really dig deep,” says Mendelson. “The climate can’t wait.”