Is It Possible to Phase Out Petroleum & Transform Our Transportation System?

In a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in collaboration with the consulting firm Evolved Energy Research (EER) and an expert advisory committee, we show that the United States can drastically reduce global warming emissions by replacing a highly polluting transportation sector operated today primarily with petroleum-based fuels, with a cleaner, more efficient and fairer system powered primarily by renewable electricity. This transition will require rapid electrification of vehicles and lead to a phase-out of oil, and can be achieved at modest cost with growth in new parts of the economy. Replacing petroleum with renewable electricity as the primary source of transportation energy will leave us all much better off.

The effects of climate change are upon us, a consequence of over a century of global warming emissions from human activity. Moving people and goods around the United States contributes to 29 percent of emissions, the largest share in the economy. An average global temperature change of more than 1.5islandC by 2100, relative to pre-industrial times, is still avoidable, but whether we are able to stay within these limits and avert catastrophic climate change depends on meeting our climate targets of emission reductions of at least 50 percent below 2005 levels in 2030, moving towards net-zero emissions in 2050. Reducing emissions from our vehicles is a big part of this.

Tailpipes from our cars, trucks and buses are also a major source of toxic local air pollution that disproportionately harms overburdened and underserved communities. Our transportation system is highly unequal and reflects decades of misleading and biased decisions at all levels of government. A reinvention of the transportation system must also take into account the historical responsibility for widespread and deeply embedded injustices that permeate our system. A just and people-centred transition of this nature will require changes that go beyond the necessary technological shifts and must focus on overcoming significant social, institutional and behavioral barriers. In other words, technological solutions are necessary but not sufficient.

How do we make this transformation happen? On the technology side, decarbonisation is key. This means switching to energy sources that have less embedded carbon and can provide the same transportation services as gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel (as well as other petroleum-based products) that have supported our economy for over a century. New technologies are not necessary to meet the necessary CO2 reduction targets to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. In our study, we show that if we increase the use of electricity to power our vehicles, together with an increase in fuel economy of internal combustion engine vehicles still on our roads, by mid-century we may have a transportation system that emits virtually no global warming gas.

Let’s look at the three technological strategies that would lead to the decarbonization of the transportation sector and the phase-out of oil by mid-century: 1) electrification, 2) strengthening greenhouse gas emission standards and fuel economy standards, and 3) clean liquid fuels.

First of all, rapid electrification of all vehicle types is a key strategy to reduce emissions from the transport sector. To achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, we must have 100% of new sales of light passenger cars to be electric by 2035 and of medium and heavy trucks by 2040 at the latest. At the same time, we must build an extensive charging infrastructure to support the growing electric fleet. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) invests in public charging infrastructure, including through the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Formula Program, and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) expands and makes changes to the federal tax credit for charging infrastructure.

The electricity sector must be rapidly decarbonised for this increase in electrification to provide maximum benefits from emissions reduction, so we must also rapidly transition to a renewable electricity grid. There is also potential in the transport-electricity sector nexus for electric vehicles to support the integration of renewable energy and help decarbonise the electric sector, with charging taking advantage of the flexibility many drivers have to maximize the amount of charging at times with plenty of wind and sun. . Over time, the study shows that there is a big shift in the relative contribution to emission reductions from the transport and electricity sectors. In the next decade or so, the electricity sector will account for three-quarters of CO2 reductions, as most of the economic reductions in emissions until then come from electricity decarbonisation, but towards the middle of the century, when electrification kicks in, transport accounts for 38 per cent of emissions reductions, while the electricity sector accounts for 23 per cent.

The second technology strategy is to strengthen greenhouse gas emission standards and fuel economy standards to drive the transition to cleaner electric and internal combustion engine vehicles. A declining proportion of the fleet will still be powered by petrol and diesel until 2040 and beyond, as vehicles stay on the road for around 15 years.

The consequence of these two strategies is a drastic reduction in the use of liquid fuels. We can achieve a reduction of 60% by 2040 and by 85% by 2050 compared to 2020 levels. There will still be just over 15% of liquid fuels left when we achieve this transition in 2050, due to hard-to-decarbonise sectors such as aviation, shipping and long-haul trucks. About two-thirds of these remaining liquid fuels will be jet fuel, while gasoline is virtually gone, and we still have a small amount of diesel for large trucks.

It is good to know that there are technologies available to us to deal with the remaining liquid fuels. We can use synthetic fuels to produce jet fuel and renewable diesel for trucks. Synthetic fuels are hydrocarbon fuels made from hydrogen and CO2 and are functionally identical to fossil-based fuels. Biofuels are an option, but scaling up the use of the raw materials for biofuels can lead to significant uncertainty due to the high costs, limited supply and sustainability risks associated with diverting vegetable oil from food uses.

There is another critical strategy that goes beyond the three technological strategies discussed above. We must live a less energy-demanding lifestyle. The US has the highest CO2 emissions per population from road transport in the world. To investigate the consequences of going beyond the technological paths in this transition to a clean and fair transport system, we developed an alternative scenario that reduces the demand for energy services compared to the main scenario, with an increase in shared mobility and active modes of transport such as walking and cycling. A 40 percent reduction in driving compared to the main scenario is assumed. A doubling of transit, rail and school bus miles and a 20 percent reduction in air and freight movements are also assumed. This implies a significant decoupling of energy demand from economic growth and illustrates how the same climate goals can be met with a less energy-demanding lifestyle and less driving, achieved through broad societal and behavioral changes. Our results show that it is possible to phase out petroleum by 2050, while at the same time significantly reducing transport energy, with a decrease of approximately 50 percent. Reducing energy consumption from all fuel types—even from cleaner fuels—is important because less demand helps reduce not only emissions, but also infrastructure needs, such as battery storage, transmission and distribution of renewable electricity, and resources such as critical minerals for EV batteries.

But is this affordable? All expected energy needs in the economy are met at a net cost of less than 1 percent of GDP. Moreover, these costs are easily outweighed by the benefits of avoided climate changes, such as hurricanes, heat waves, droughts, fires and floods, as well as the avoided costs of adverse health effects from polluted air caused by burning oil. based liquid fuels, estimates that were beyond the scope of this study (here).

A series of coordinated policies and regulations at all administrative levels is required to achieve this transformation of the transport system. It is imperative for all stakeholders to have a voice in the formulation of policies and to understand the central role of policies in the following areas:

  • electrification of light, medium and heavy vehicles and development of charging infrastructure and batteries;
  • clean fuel standards that hold fuel producers accountable for steadily reducing life-cycle emissions from transportation fuels;
  • strengthening global warming emissions and fuel economy standards;
  • deployment of renewable energy in the electricity grid and the potential for transport-electricity sector coupling, such as flexible charging;
  • supporting healthier, diverse ways of getting around that make mobility accessible to all, such as walking, cycling and using public transport, as well as facilitating a shift in land use policy towards efficient clustered development;
  • to reduce driving and understand the impacts of personal vehicle use, freight, shipping and aviation;
  • to ensure that risks to overburdened and underserved communities are mitigated, historical inequalities are addressed, and that communities are not affected by burdens associated with new technologies.
  • application of carbon dioxide removal only in circumstances where direct replacement of fossil fuel combustion is impossible (the energy model used in this study reflects the current understanding that various forms of these technologies may be necessary to reach net-zero emissions, but they are not free of significant uncertainties and risks, and is inconsistent with the goal of replacing all fossil-based transport fuel with cleaner alternatives as soon as possible).

Solutions are at our disposal, but we must choose to use them to avoid the very high costs of inaction. It is possible to achieve a decarbonised transport system where renewable electricity and zero or low carbon fuels are the primary energy sources for the sector instead of oil, but to achieve this transformation we need effective and sustainable investment, a robust political environment, community participation, consumer awareness and expanded and improved mobility for all.

Originally published by the Union of Concerned Scientists, The Equation. By Maria Cecilia Pinto de Moura


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