For green shipping, U.S. should shift more freight to rail - Metropolitan Planning Council

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For green shipping, U.S. should shift more freight to rail

Flickr user vxla (cc).

If we want to reduce carbon emissions from transportation, we need more freight on tracks.

Transportation has had an undeniable effect on global climate change. Movement—by road, rail, sea and air—now accounts for 23 percent of world carbon emissions from fossil fuel consumption, and the situation is getting worse. Total transport-related emissions increased from 1990 to 2007, according to the International Transport Forum, a global body connected to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

The rise of personal mobility is one explanation: increases in the share of households with cars in developing countries and increased driving in developed places have certainly played an important role. In North America, for example, road emissions grew by 36 percent over the past two decades, more than any other contributor to pollution.

Freight is also playing an important role in the increase of carbon emissions from the transport sector. With the expected growth in trade over the coming decades, addressing the contribution of freight must be an element of any carbon-reduction strategy. Indeed, the United Nations Climate Change Conference planned for this fall in Paris may be the opportunity for countries around the world to begin making commitments to lowering their climate impacts. That’s an essential goal given the rising negative effects of climate change on world cities.

I gained some insight on these issues at the annual International Transport Forum summit in Leipzig, Germany that I’ll relate here (full disclosure: as part of the Media Travel Programme, the Forum covered the cost of my attending and traveling to the event).

Today, freight accounts for between 30 and 40 percent of transportation emissions worldwide, but freight volumes are expected to grow by 230 to 420 percent by 2050, depending on the outcomes of international trade negotiations. At the same time, carbon emissions related to that trade, even with some improvements in fuel efficiency, could grow by 140 to 350 percent—putting major dents in any carbon-reduction goals that must be achieved to prevent disastrous impacts related to climate change.

Though the majority of international trade—85 percent of volume—occurs by sea, the most damaging carbon impacts occur on the ground, when freight is moving to and from ports. According to the International Transport Forum, of all international trade, 10 percent by volume is moved by truck, but that volume accounts for 30 percent of carbon emissions.

These facts are reinforced by the American experience, according to a Brookings Institution report released last month. That study shows that “the average international good travels over 1,000 miles within the U.S. to get from a port to its market.” Indeed, several of the Chicago region’s major trading partners are Canada, China, Mexico and Japan.

Of domestic travel overall, trucks carry about three-fourths of both value and weight. For adjacent regions, like Dallas and Houston, “trucks can account for 90 percent or more of freight activity,” according to the Brookings study.

All that freight movement has its effects; in the U.S., 12.5 percent of total carbon emissions are derived from trucks, despite the fact that they account for fewer than five percent of road vehicles. Yet those negative externalities are not being paid for by either transportation providers or users—especially since the gas taxes paid by both freight transporters and regular drivers aren’t even enough to cover the costs of maintenance. According to a new report by the Congressional Budget Office, trucks produce $58 to $129 billion in annual damage to roads, added congestion and increased pollution. Per ton-mile, the private and social cost to move freight by truck is 22 cents, compared with just 6 cents for rail.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that compensating for the social costs of moving freight through a weight-distance tax and an increase in the tax on diesel fuel would cause a 3.6 percent shift of ton-miles from trucks to rail, thereby eliminating millions of highway truck trips and significantly reducing emissions because freight trains are about three times as energy efficient as tractor trailers. Moving freight by rail is not only less expensive than moving freight by truck, but it is also better for the environment.

Though such a policy does not appear to be moving forward anytime soon because of reluctance from Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency has unveiled new emissions rules that would require trucks beginning in 2021 to increase their fuel economy incrementally 40 percent by 2027, or from around five miles per gallon today to nine miles per gallon 12 years from now. These changes not only are technically doable, but they will save $170 billion at the gas pump and reduce carbon emissions by 1 billion metric tons—nearly as much as all U.S. residences annually.

Both the taxes proposed by the Congressional Budget Office and the increased fuel economy requirements planned by the Environmental Protection Agency would have the net effect of reducing American carbon emissions derived from freight, an important step in the face of rising global trade and toward the goal of reducing emissions overall.

Any policies that encourage a shift in freight from trucks to rail would also likely benefit the Chicago region, whose freight rail infrastructure is the nation’s most significant. Through projects like CREATE, which is upgrading several of the region’s rail lines to speed traffic and reduce conflict between passenger and freight trains, the metropolitan area is taking the first step.

But more action is necessary to encourage a wholehearted shift toward rail and away from the damage produced by too much trucking. Because of congestion on our region's railways, freight carriers have frequently taken to moving rail cars around by truck, which then adds to road congestion and pollution. And the still-large number of at-grade crossings in our region means that vehicle emissions increase when they idle as they wait for trains to pass.

In addition, over the past several years, the level of freight running on trains through Chicago has picked up significantly due to the increase in natural gas and oil production in North Dakota, and several rail lines have reached capacity. More investment in upgrading the region’s—and the nation’s—rail corridors is necessary if demand increases even further.

The U.S. Senate DRIVE Act, which still must be passed by the full Senate and U.S. House, and be signed by President Obama, would create a new multi-billion-dollar freight program specifically to improve truck and rail movement. This significant federal investment could play an essential role in addressing the Chicago region’s freight needs, and it is a policy that MPC has been supporting for years.


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