Study shows how electric transportation and urban design help us meet climate goals

New research from the Institute for Transportation Development Policy (ITDP) and the University of California, Davis (UC Davis) concludes that electric cars alone won’t save us – the only way to stay below 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) of warming is a combination of electrification and increased urban density. Lewis Fulton of UC Davis and D. Taylor Reich of ITDP, the lead authors of the report, “The Compact City Scenario — Electrified,” calculated the numbers on four scenarios:


  • Business as usual (BAU) where we continue to build and drive internal combustion engine (ICE) cars, with over two billion new cars by 2050.
  • High EV where all cars are electrified at the rate announced at COP26, with sales of ICE vehicles phased out by 2040.
  • High offset where land use is shifted to a compact mixed-use design, much like the one shown in our article How do we build in a climate crisis. “In the lagging world, it is easier to get around cities on foot, by bicycle or by public transport than by car, and the demand for cars is therefore reduced. car increases slightly due to population growth, it is much lower than under BAU or High EV. “
  • EV + Shift where a combination of compact High Shift design in pedestrian cities and electrification of all vehicles.

The problem with the high-power electric vehicle (EV) scenario is that while cars and trucks do not emit greenhouse gases in their exhaust, it will take far too long for them. change all. They will need vast new sources of clean electric power. And, notably, the report takes into account embodied carbon or initial carbon emissions from manufacturing and the infrastructure that supports them, which we noted is an important but overlooked issue.

“Our scope is not limited to greenhouse gas emissions from the operation of vehicles (‘Well-to-Wheel’). Instead, we include emissions from vehicle manufacturing and disposal, which is especially important for electric vehicles due to the carbon-intensive processes. to create batteries. We also include emissions from the construction and maintenance of infrastructure, including roads, railways, cycle paths and parking spaces. “

On the first review I thought their initial carbon accounting was too low, but they covered that up as well. They write: “For the production, disposal and infrastructure of vehicles, we assume a fairly strong decarbonization, of the order of 50 to 60% by 2050.”


The inclusion of embodied carbon, or emissions from manufacturing, means these dark blue chunks of manufacturing emissions are significant; going all-electric does not mean that in the complete life cycle the emissions disappear. They are just as important as the operating emissions that come from the grid, which is not fully electrified.


The biggest difference between just switching to High EV and combining High EV with High Shift is the number of cars on the road – around 300 million less. It also adds up to a massive reduction in the amount of electricity needed to run the transportation system.


Put it all together and the electrification of transportation and the shift to a compact design is the only scenario that cuts emissions enough to stay below the curve representing the emissions reductions needed to keep global warming below 2.7. degrees F (1.5 degrees C). Or as ITDP CEO Heather Thompson put it in a press release:

“We need electrification, but we will not reach our target of 1.5 ° C if we focus on electric vehicles only. We also need to focus on the fundamental equation of driving less, even in electric vehicles, which still require a lot of resources like clean electricity. We need high density development that provides better access to jobs, education and services for families of all income levels without depending on the car. Pedestrian and cycling cities are not only better for the economy and the environment, they are healthier and happier for everyone. We have the evidence, and we know what to do: we need an integrated approach that includes both electrification and compact development. Cities must mobilize. ”

Summary of the LCGE and the population accommodated with fixed land tenure for the four urban typologies.

npj Urban sustainability

Notably absent from the report is the discussion of the carbon emissions that accompany the change in the form of construction that accompanies compact cities. In a previous article on the density of Goldilocks producing the lowest lifecycle carbon emissions, we noted the research by Francesco Pomponi demonstrating that high density low height (HDLR) design such as the one you would have in compact cities of the type proposed by the ITDP, has less than half of the life cycle GHG emissions (LCGE per capita than low density, low rise (LDLR) designs. ”

Now the ITDP tells the transportation side of the story but lacks the built form side. One of the study’s authors, Taylor Reich, acknowledges this, telling Treehugger that “we are a transport consultancy and that is not our expertise.”

The ITDP report emphasizes that urban form and transport are interconnected, a point that we have long tried to make in Treehugger. In the conclusion of my book “Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle”, I channeled transportation planner Jarrett Walker and wrote, “The way we live and the way we move are not. not two separate problems; they are two sides of the same coin, the same thing in different languages.

More recently, I wrote: “We need to stop talking about transportation emissions as something detached from building emissions. What we design and build determines how we move (and vice versa) and you can’t separate the two. These are all emissions from the built environment. , and we have to manage them together. ”

The ITDP report doesn’t quite fully pull it and give a picture of the full impact of the built-form change and transport change, but the pieces are starting to fall into place.

Reich also notes that starting to implement the changes in public transport that get people out of cars, like buses and cycle lanes, is much faster than waiting for electric cars.

“Timing is essential, especially over the next ten years. Electric cars are unlikely to become mainstream until the early 1930s, but compact city policies are ready now. If we build public transportation, bike lanes and compact neighborhoods today, we can reduce the demand for fossil fuel motorization. Planning for public transport will pave the way for easier electrification, especially in fast-growing cities. ”

The compact city part of the equation takes a little longer and needs something else.

“It’s ambitious to say that we can phase out internal combustion engines by 2040, and it’s ambitious to say that we can rethink cities so that more than half of all trips are made on foot, by bicycle or by public transport ”, but these things are logistically and technologically feasible. – all that’s missing is the political will.


This graph really sums it all up, the difference that occurs when you switch from electrifying all those cars in the High EV scenario, or keeping 300 million off the road, to other modes of transportation: greenhouse gases are about 40% lower. In addition to needing electric cars, we need fewer cars, and for that we need cities designed for people to walk, cycle or use public transport.

And this, again, relates only to transport emissions; it does not include changes in the shape of the building, total emissions from the built environment. It will be an even prettier image.

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