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An Initiative to Decarbonise the Transportation Sector in Northeast U.S. Picks Up Speed

A recent study conducted by the Transportation, Equity, Climate and Health (TRECH) project issued a preliminary conclusion that a regional collaboration to reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector through the Transportation Climate Initiative (TCI) would be a major boost to public health.

TRECH is a joint research initiative of Harvard’s Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment, the University of North Carolina, and Boston University’s School of Public Health. According to the study, full implementation of TCI by 2032 would help avoid 1,000 deaths and close to 5,000 childhood asthma cases per year. The biggest benefit from TCI would come from a 25% reduction cap for greenhouse gas emissions in participating states.

For ten years, TCI has largely remained an aspiration ever since twelve Northeastern states (Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Virginia) and the District of Columbia (DC) signed a Declaration of Intent to create this regional transportation compact in 2010 with the goal of reducing the dependence of vehicles on fossil fuels and cutting emissions of toxic gases that contribute to climate change.

In 2018, nine states (Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Virginia) and the District of Columbia created a policy framework to cap emissions from fossil fuels, issue ‘allowances’ for every ton of emissions allowed under the cap, and invest the funds earned from selling allowances to decrease carbon emissions from the transportation sector.

The basic idea of TCI is to charge a fee on wholesale gas and diesel fuel distributors for each ton of carbon released from burning the hydrocarbons they sell. The fee would increase with time and the cap on allowable emissions would decrease. The revenue accumulated from these fees would fund cleaner, safer, and more reliable transportation infrastructure that would be largely based on electrification. Proponents of the program believe that it would have a measurable impact on emissions and garner nearly $7 billion to fund clean transportation projects in the Northeast.

TCI has gained more urgency in recent months, particularly, in view of scientific findings about how exposure to pollution can exacerbate illnesses, including COVID-19 symptoms.

In December 2020, governors of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and the mayor of DC announced the launch of the TCI program in their jurisdictions. As TCI members work on details how auctioning of allowances and how to track compliance with TCI requirements, the remaining nine states that helped develop the program are yet to formally join it.

Eight of them, except for New Hampshire, issued a statement that expressed their continued support to TCI and willingness to collaborate with the program participants on how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In 2019, governor of New Hampshire Chris Sununu openly said that his state would not take part in the regional transportation compact because he would not “force Granite Staters to pay more for their gas just to subsidize other state’s crumbling infrastructure.” Conservative groups in Massachusetts have also expressed their scepticism about TCI.

While opponents of TCI argue that it is nothing but a gas tax, which they believe will be a burden on ordinary people and bring no clear environmental benefits, supporters of the program state that it would make a meaningful impact on the environment and public health, citing the success of a similar regional cap-and-trade program known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) that has reduced emissions from power plants.

RGGI is the country’s first binding cap-and-trade system aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions from power plants from participating ten states in the Northeast.

In an interview with the author, Kenneth Kimmell, president of the Cambridge-based Union of Concerned Scientists, who also served on Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker’s Commission on the Future of Transportation in the Commonwealth to help guide future transportation decisions, said that he was not troubled by the fact that some states may not yet be ready to join in the programme.

What is important is that several states begin moving TCI forward, and other states could join later. Just like with RGGI, different states could join TCI at different times.

Since 2005, this regional market-based program cut greenhouse gas emissions by more than 45% in power plants as the economy in the Northeast continued to grow. The success has been largely attributed to increased energy efficiency and a growing share of renewable energy among its participants.

Kimmell also believes that even if there is a modest increase in gas prices, the public health benefits of cleaner air will significantly exceed the costs of the program, which is the central argument of the TRECH study.

Emily Norton, Executive Director at Charles River Watershed Association and former Massachusetts Chapter Director of Sierra Club, told the author that higher gas prices can affect consumer behaviour, for example, by incentivising people to shop for more energy-efficient cars. ‘It is absurd to say that we cannot afford to pay a few cents more to fund TCI’s clean and sustainable transportation programs when gas prices have gone up and down by $1 or more over the years,’ says Norton.

Since 2005, average annual gas prices in the U.S. have swung between $2.3, $3.6, to $2.6. Moreover, electrification of public transportation, building more electric vehicle chargers, and providing incentives to people to use electric vehicles would in fact reduce the cost of transportation and fuel for average users.

Although the ongoing pandemic upended traffic and driving habits of millions of people in the U.S. and around the world, TCI proponents believe that the pandemic has strengthened their case more than before. There is a strong emphasis not only on the fact that pollution worsens COVID-19 symptoms, but how pandemics may become a new normal as the planet continues to warm. Besides, reduced traffic during the pandemic seems to have been just a temporary relief since more and more Americans are back on the roads as social restrictions are being lifted in many states and a sense of normalcy begins to set in in the U.S.

Kimmell says that many people have not even had an option to work remotely during the pandemic, and they are counting on affordable and accessible public transportation, and revenues from the TCI program can and should be used for that purpose. Kimmell believes that TCI’s

launch by 2022 would be auspicious as driving is likely to be back to the pre-COVID 19 levels in the country by then as the economy grows out of the pandemic-driven recession.

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