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New Study Evaluates Pathways for Reducing Climate Pollution from North Carolina’s Transportation Sector

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. — RTI International, a nonprofit research institute, released a report evaluating the impact of four strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from North Carolina’s transportation sector. Transportation is the leading source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions nationwide and set to become number one in North Carolina. 

The report, “Evolving Transportation in North Carolina: An Analysis of Emission Reduction Pathways for North Carolina’s Transportation Sector,” was created in part to help analyze options for achieving Gov. Roy Cooper’s goal to reduce total GHG emissions in N.C. to 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. The report was made possible with funding from the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

“Our goal was to evaluate what can be done in the near future to reduce transportation emissions while simultaneously creating a more equitable and accessible transportation system throughout the state,” said Kyle Clark-Sutton, research economist at RTI and project lead. 

The study looked at a portfolio of options to help North Carolina meet its greenhouse gas reductions goal that included Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) reductions, increased transit usage, electrification of passenger vehicles and vehicle efficiency standards. Additionally, the report recommends potential policies and programs that other states have explored to meet these targets. 

The study found that reducing vehicles miles traveled (VMT) by passenger cars by 10% would result in emissions reductions of 3.7 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) in 2025, which is roughly equivalent to taking 750,000 cars off the road for a year. Other strategies yielded emissions reductions ranging from 65,000 to 1.6 million tons of CO2. 

“North Carolina’s goal for transportation is currently limited to a proposal to increase the number of electric vehicles (EVs) on the road to 80,000 by 2025” said Kym Hunter of SELC. “Our study found that this goal is too small, as North Carolina is set to achieve this number of EVs under a business-as-usual model. North Carolina needs to embrace other policies. Electrifying our transportation system is an important strategy to mitigate climate change and clean up the air we breathe, but it cannot stand alone. We also need to look at strategies to reduce driving, increase transit use and clean up the gas-powered vehicles on the road for North Carolina to achieve its greenhouse gas reduction goals.” 

For each of the four strategies below, RTI estimated the resulting emissions reductions by 2025, examined policies to kickstart and accelerate reductions, and considered how changes in transportation technology and policy can create a more equitable, accessible transportation system in the state. 

  1. Vehicle Miles Traveled Reduction – Reduce total miles traveled by light duty vehicles by 10 percent by 2025. 
  2. Transit Adoption – Shift one percent of light duty vehicles travel to public transit by 2025. 
  3. Battery Electric Vehicle Adoption – Accelerate battery electric vehicle adoption to 20 percent of light duty vehicle sales by 2025. 
  4. Fuel Economy – Achieve an average fuel economy of 54.5 miles per gallon for all new light duty vehicle sales in North Carolina by 2025. 

Since 2005, greenhouse gas emissions in North Carolina have declined by 22 percent, but emissions are projected to remain relatively stable through 2030 without more aggressive action in the near term to accelerate progress. In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that we have just twelve years to get our emissions under control to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

“This report makes clear that there is no silver bullet for curbing harmful climate pollution from our transportation sector,” said Luis Martinez, Senior Attorney at NRDC. “Achieving significant emissions reductions will require a suite of solutions that holistically rethinks transportation in North Carolina – from putting more electric vehicles on our roads to expanding public transit and making our communities more livable and equitable.”