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From the cars that take us downtown to the airplanes that fly us across the globe, transportation is one of the most visible and personal ways we are impacting the Earth’s climate. In this episode of Crash Course Climate and Energy, we’ll explore the benefits and challenges of electric vehicles, and look at some of the ways we’re trying to decarbonize much larger modes of transportation.

Introduction: Decarbonizing Transportation 00:00
Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Transportation 1:00
Electric Vehicles 3:13
Designing Pedestrian-Friendly Cities 7:19
Reducing Emissions From Trucks, Ships, & Planes 9:52
Review & Credits 12:58


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CC Kids:
Our ability to get to faraway places fast is a  marvel.

Transportation allows us to share ideas,   see loved ones, seek out all the  cool cat cafes and glacier museums,   even swap our best inventions. So let’s say I’m on an expedition to my favorite glacier in Iceland, and  I forget my favorite jacket.

In just a few days, I can have it shipped to  me, and I’ll finally feel complete again.   But for as magical as that is,  transportation is also one of   the most visible and personal ways we’re  transforming the Earth’s climate. Cars, ships, and planes release  heat-trapping greenhouse gases into   the atmosphere every day. Which means that,  to decarbonize transportation, we’ll have to take to the road, the air, and the sea.

Hi hi! I'm M Jackson and this is Crash Course Climate and Energy. [INTRO] When it comes to climate change, it’s easy  to point fingers at transportation. If you have a car, say your beat-up Camry, hot rod,  or a hot rod Camry it’s probably the most   visible source of emissions in your life.

And transportation is an important piece of the   emissions puzzle. Planes, cars, cruise ships  — the whole industry — transportation spews   8.2 billion tons of greenhouse gases  into the atmosphere every year. That’s 16% of the around 51 billion tons we  release annually — and the fourth-largest   fossil fuel emitting industry.

And that’s just the  fuel required to power vehicles. That’s not even   including the fossil fuel emissions required  to refine the oil before it gets to the pump,   or to produce the steel the cars are  made of in the first place. So, it’s not an insignificant slice of the gassy  pie!

Which, gross, by the way. Who wrote this? Almost half of the emissions from  transportation comes from personal vehicles:  the cars, vans, motorcycles, and SUVs  we drive in our daily lives.

The other half comes from all the other vehicles:  cargo ships, semi-trucks, planes, buses, and more,   transporting lots of stuff or people. Decarbonizing both realms will mean  fewer greenhouse emissions and less  pollution for the entire planet. But decarbonizing transportation  also has a second major benefit:   Beyond helping slow the global effects of climate  change, it could also be a step towards correcting   environmental inequities — things like air,  water, and noise pollution that disproportionately   affect some more than others.

For example, many highways in the   U. S. have intentionally been built right  through low-income communities. That means the people who live there —  often, people of color — have had to bear   the brunt of transportation’s air and water  pollution, and experience unjust physical and   mental health outcomes as a result.

So, decarbonizing the vehicles that drive   by every day would have dual benefits.  It would lower carbon levels globally,   but could also be one step towards improving  specific living environments that, in many cases,   the residents didn’t ask for. Wherever you live, there is good news! The first step to tackling  decarbonization is clear and underway.

To decarbonize our rides, we must first  electrify them. And what we can’t electrify,   we’ll have to make as efficient as possible  and supply with alternative fuels. When it comes to personal transportation,  you’ve probably seen electric vehicles in the wild by this point.

Instead of having to fuel up at a gas station,  they can plug in at homes or grocery stores,  or cat cafes, and zoom from point A to point B on rechargeable batteries. Because they run on electricity,   these vehicles release fewer emissions  and air pollutants than gas-powered cars,  no matter where they’re driven.

But: an electric car is only as sustainable  as the electricity it’s plugged into. That means a car charged on renewable electricity comes closer to zero emissions than  one driven off of a coal-burning power plant. This is why carbon-free  electricity is such a big deal:  It’s involved in decarbonizing all of our other  industries, including how we get places. But carbon-free electricity isn’t the main barrier  to electric vehicles.

There are bunches of reasons  they’re still not everywhere. One is charging station access. Most electric cars can be plugged in at  home, with similar outlets in the garage  to what your power tools use.

But if you drive long distances  without a predictable place to  plug in, that’s a problem. Globally, more charging stations are being built  every year, especially in large cities. But for electric vehicles to really take off,  there’s a need for more charging infrastructure  in more places — especially rural areas.

Governments and private entities have a role   to play in promoting this, by offering  incentives, even updating building codes   on places like parking garages so that  more spaces have electricity access. Another challenge, though, is the  pesky specter of the Green Premium:  the cost difference between low-carbon tech and  the conventional, carbon-emitting choice. For instance, people in Europe and China have been  quicker to adopt electric vehicles than people   in the U.

S. In parts of Europe, sky-high gas  prices already match the cost of electric cars,  which means the Green Premium there is lower. But in the U.

S., this hasn’t always been the case.  In 2021, almost two-thirds of Americans  thought electric cars were better for   the environment… but more expensive. And only  40% said they would consider buying one. But, the cost to build electric cars  has dropped, as government subsidies  and cheaper batteries drive prices down.

And the closer an electric car’s upfront cost   gets to its gas-powered equivalent,  the easier it should be to afford   plugging in over gassing up. That said, manufacturers have tended  to focus on making luxury electric vehicles  instead of affordable ones. And the metals   in batteries aren’t always easy to come by  — not to mention the environmental impacts   of mining those rare Earth metals.

So, although electrifying our rides is   the end goal, the journey there  is probably not going to be one   seamless electric slide into the sunset. I mean, we hope it would be. We’d love for that   to be a big part of the choreography, if not at  least the grand finale.

But we’ll probably need   to learn some other dance moves along the way. And one potential dance partner is…  government policy. Trust me, they’ve got some moves.  Even if they step on your toes sometimes.

Some countries are banning the sale of  petroleum-powered vehicles. France plans   to ban them by 2040, and the UK by 2030. And some countries offer cash rebates or tax   incentives to electric car buyers.

But as we transition away from gas-powered   cars, we’ll likely still be  sharing the road with them.   So another policy move is adjusting  fuel economy standards — basically,   requiring manufacturers to build more  efficient cars, which emit less carbon. There’s also congestion pricing,  or charging drivers a fee on  high-trafficked roads. The old “discourage  driving, reduce emissions” trick.

But congestion pricing is most equitable  when people have alternative ways of   getting where they need to go. If we want to encourage people to drive less — and reduce the half of transportation  emissions that come from personal vehicles —   we also have to design cities friendly  to that, with sidewalks, bike lanes,  and robust public transit systems. Some surveys suggest that having good public   transport and ride-sharing services can lead  to as much as a 35% drop in car ownership —   and the emissions that come with it.

But designing cities that are truly   friendly for everyone means leveraging the most  powerful tool we’ve got: people themselves. Let’s head to the Thought Bubble. Tulsa, Oklahoma is a sprawling area of suburbs,   rural fringes, and an urban core.

And it can  be tough to get around without a car. But it helps if you’ve got a 12-meter bus. That’s what the Indian Nations Council of Governments enlisted when tasked with  bettering Tulsa’s public transportation.

Also known as INCOG, they’re a mix  of tribal and local governments. And instead of holding your traditional city  meeting to try and improve public transport,   they took to the streets, and turned a  bus into a mobile outreach center. Outfitted with interactive screens and  displays, the bus spent four months driving   all over the city.

And anyone on-board  could talk to transportation planners,   learn about public transit possibilities,  and weigh in on what should happen next. No one had to come downtown for a  formal meeting on a busy weeknight:  The conversation came to them. By the end of the tour, the bus had reached   2,000 citizens, most of whom had never had a  voice in transportation planning before.

And as a result, INCOG was able to identify 16  places in Tulsa where bus routes were most needed.  And a couple years later, a separate project also  had locals identify places that weren’t inviting   on foot, like busy roads without sidewalks. When citizens get left out of these conversations,   you can end up with public transportation that…  doesn’t serve the whole public. Or a city full   of people in their personal vehicles.

By taking to the streets, INCOG helped Tulsa   more than just reduce future carbon emissions:  They helped the city make a plan that will create   a cleaner, more equitable community. Thanks, Thought Bubble. Designing more walkable cities with more public  transit would help reduce the way transportation  affects us and the planet, especially while  we work on decarbonizing personal vehicles.  It’s a win for both environmental  justice and global carbon levels.

But then, there’s the other half  of transportation’s emissions —   the cogs in the rest of the global machine. There’s the bus I take to buy mac and cheese, yes.   But there’s also the fleet of semi-trucks  carrying mac and cheese around the country,  and the recycling truck hauling  the box away when I’m done. Then, there’s also the heavyweights.

The ships  and airplanes that carry the powdered cheese,  and the noodles, and the cardboard. And me once  I’m properly fueled with mac and cheese when I’m   off to Antarctica to check out a glacier. The heavier the vehicle, the harder it is to   replace liquid fuels with electricity.

Liquid petroleum packs a lot of energy into   not much space, to the point where the average  lithium-ion battery carries anywhere from 50 to   100 times less energy than an equivalent amount of  gasoline. And even the best batteries still have   35 times less energy per unit of weight. What that actually tells us is to supply   an already very heavy vehicle with  enough power to drive a long time on   a single charge… you sacrifice cargo  space.

And not a little space. For example, a diesel-fueled truck can go  over 1,600 kilometers on a single tank. But for an electric truck to go the  same distance on a single charge,  that truck would have to be mostly batteries, with  barely any room in the back for mac and cheese.   And a plane wouldn’t even  be able to get in the air   The good news is, batteries can still work for  the lighter of these big vehicles, like buses and  garbage trucks that make short trips and have  a consistent spot to charge every night.

Now, if you’re interested in becoming a scientist  or an engineer, there are all kinds of opportunities   to work on the next generation of batteries  — tech that could help extend the range of   electric vehicles, lower the Green Premiums on  them, and help more consumers go electric. Or, you could explore working on even newer  technologies to help the biggest vehicles!   For instance, instead of diesel, cargo ships could  be fueled with ammonia — yeah, the stuff in cat pee — a colorless, renewable fuel that packs ten  times more energy than the best batteries. And for planes, lithium-air batteries  — which carry double the energy in the   same amount of space – could make some  electric-powered flights possible.

But for any of these technologies to  get transportation off the ground,   we’re gonna need a lot more research funding. So, another route is to invest in research that   lowers the Green Premium of drop-in fuels. Like we mentioned in Episode 5, these   lower-carbon alternatives can be substituted –  or “dropped in” – to our current engines.

For example, second-generation biofuels can  be made from non-edible farming byproducts,   such as cornstalks. And electrofuels can be made   by mixing hydrogen with carbon dioxide  captured from industrial plants, in a   process powered by carbon-free electricity. Right now, a big barrier is the cost difference   between these newer drop-in fuels and the fossil  fuels most vehicles were built to run on.

But investing in these substitutes is a good  step in the lower-emission direction. We wouldn’t need to modify heavy engines  or build entirely new vehicles. Plus,   these fuels can be moved using tanks  and pipelines we already have.

So — decarbonizing transportation  is complicated! If it wasn’t,   it likely would have already been done. After all, it’s one thing to change how you move around.

It’s another thing to change how lots  of people or lots of stuff moves around. So, our best step is to electrify as many vehicles  as possible. And where that isn’t possible,   we need to explore alternatives to the  energy-dense fuels currently powering them.   It’ll also be important to  capture the carbon they emit,   to offset those emissions we can’t yet avoid.

We’ll dive more into those  solutions in our next episode. Special thanks to Kyle and Amanda Fredrickson,  the dance choreographers for this episode.  Thanks for keeping our moves funky and fresh — and teaching  us that nobody says “funky and fresh” anymore —   and thanks for supporting us on Patreon. Crash Course Climate and Energy is produced   by Complexly with support provided by Breakthrough  Energy and Gates Ventures.

This episode was filmed   at

Castle Geraghty Studio and was made with  the help of all these nice people. If you want   to help keep Crash Course free for everyone,  forever, you can join our community on Patreon.