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With Climate Change on the Agenda, Tolling Can Make a Difference

Bill Cramer

Guest blog by Mitchell Beer

PARIS - With delegates from 150 countries attending the United Nations climate change summit November 30 - December 11, there might never be a better moment to position tolling as part of the solution to one of world’s hottest topics – climate change.

Negotiators at the Le Bourget conference center are busily slogging through a 50-page text to arrive at a final climate deal—word is that they’re dealing with about 1,000 pieces of square-bracketed text, each of them representing an unresolved issue.

But they’re expected to get the deal done, and when it comes to implementation, transportation is likely to be one of the biggest challenges. On the eve of the conference, the U.S. Energy Information Agency reported ”transportation of people and goods accounts for about 25% of all energy consumption in the world.”

And unlike electricity production, where the world is making a rapid shift to stunningly affordable renewable sources, transportation is still a work in progress—over the shorter term for personal mobility, over the longer haul (yeah, pun intended) for freight.

Which is what makes user financing a potentially life- and planet-saving tool in the toolbox, not only to pay for transportation infrastructure, but to boost efficiency and manage demand.

It’s Real. It’s Happening Now. And We Can Help.

Through most of the world (and even most of North America), it’s considered settled science that the climate is changing, and human activity is the cause. In many parts of the world, the constant, grinding, day-to-day reality of drought, crop failures, wildfires, sea level rise, and severe weather is urgent enough that adapting to climate impacts is high on the agenda for this year’s UN Summit.

While the accepted international goal is to hold average global warming to 3.6ºF (2.0ºC) above pre-industrial levels, there’s mounting evidence that that’s only acceptable if we’re prepared to write off multiple small islands states, much of Bangladesh, and major swaths of U.S. and Canadian coastline.

But to hit the comparatively safer target of 2.7ºF (1.5ºC), we’ll have to move even farther, even faster. Among other things, that means pulling out all the stops to make transportation as efficient as possible.

Cutting Congestion and Curbing Demand

U.S. drivers already have 160 billion reasons to be concerned about congested highways. That’s the number of dollars they waste on congested highways, along with seven billion hours of their driving time, according to the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI)’s 2015 Urban Mobility Scorecard.

The urgency of the climate crisis, brought into focus by the Paris summit, points to yet another good reason to drastically reduce highway congestion that wastes fuel and pumps excess carbon pollution into the atmosphere. But that doesn’t mean tolling agencies should shift their messaging.

One of the more interesting challenges facing the climate and energy community is to find the facts, arguments, and motivators that are not directly related to carbon, but will encourage deeper, faster emission cuts. Given a choice between pitching tolls as a climate solution (though it is) and talking about the time, fuel, and annoyance people can save in properly-funded roads, the tolling industry’s familiar arguments will still be the most effective, with most audiences, most of the time.

If 12 MPG is Good News, Delays Are a Disaster

As a climate and carbon challenge, passenger travel will likely take care of itself over the next 15 to 20 years, as the vehicle mix shifts toward electrics and the electricity supply decarbonizes.

The picture gets more complicated with freight, for one simple reason: unlike personal mobility, the cargo on a big rig is far heavier than the vehicle, and there’s no immediate prospect of an electric motor that will deliver the power and distance to support long-haul transport of goods.

So it’s considered good news that the U.S. Department of Energy is promoting measures to increase 18-wheelers’ energy efficiency by a whopping 50%--to an underwhelming 12 miles per gallon. (Yes, 12 mpg. In 2015.) With U.S. freight volumes expected to increase 64% through 2030, the cost- and carbon-saving arguments that make sense for commuter congestion are even more compelling for fleet operators.

Into the Eye of the Storm

The Paris climate conference continues through December 11. So we’re still more than a week away from knowing the shape and scope of the final deal, and the level of ambition it will set for industries, governments, and transportation providers around the world. But two things will likely be clear after the dust settles.

It will make sense for all categories of highway users to drastically reduce their vehicle emissions, not only to help avert runaway climate change, but because they benefit directly by reducing the time, fuel, and money they waste on the road.

And it will make sense for tolling agencies to help customers make those changes, for exactly the same mix of reasons.

For more on highway infrastructure and severe weather, download the summary and illustrated audio report of IBTTA’s January, 2013 workshop on the tolling industry’s response to Superstorm Sandy.

Mitchell Beer, founder of Smarter Shift is onsite at the UN Climate Conference in Paris.