Achieving Climate Targets Requires Looking Beyond the Tailpipe

A highway interchange is seen through the exhaust of an airplane in Costa Mesa, California, June 2018.

On Wednesday, January 27, the Biden administration signed an executive order directing all federal agencies to take bold, progressive actions to address the climate crisis, which threatens “our ability to live on planet Earth.” The goal of the order is to spur a governmentwide effort to implement policies that will put the United States on a path to net-zero emissions by midcentury or earlier. Climate change is an urgent threat, and this order importantly marshals the full power of existing federal law and federal procurement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The need to reform federal policy and procurement to address climate change is especially important in transportation. According to data from the Energy Information Administration, transportation is now the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, surpassing emissions from electricity production as of 2016. In the 12-month period ending in January 2020, Americans drove a staggering 3.2 trillion miles—the equivalent of traveling to Mars and back more than 11,000 times. This driving is made possible by continued highway expansion.

One important provision of the climate order is that it directs federal agency leaders to identify “any fossil fuel subsidies provided by their respective agencies”—a critical requirement to ensure that federal funds do not subsidize life-threatening, harmful pollution. Yet each year, the federal government spends more than $43 billion on highway construction and maintenance, effectively constituting a massive fossil fuel subsidy. The result is an ever-expanding highway network that leads to more driving and emissions. Since the year 2000, the United States has added 95,118 lane miles of interstates and other principal arterial roadways and highways. Over this same period, total annual vehicle miles traveled (VMT) has increased by 587 billion miles. Moreover, the rate of VMT growth has outpaced population growth, meaning that people are driving more. Stated simply: highway infrastructure is carbon infrastructure.

Transition to electric vehicles and shift away from highway infrastructure

Achieving U.S. climate goals will mean both electrifying light-, medium-, and heavy-duty vehicles and building a transportation system—including comprehensive electric vehicle charging infrastructure—that facilitates robust, inclusive economic growth while also substantially reducing per capita VMT. The climate order directs federal agencies to use both policy and procurement tools to electrify federal, state, local, and tribal vehicles, including vehicles operated by the U.S. Postal Service. According to data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, federal, state, and local governments own or lease more than 2.9 million light- and heavy-duty vehicles. Rapidly transitioning these vehicles to clean, electric models will both reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help expand clean vehicle manufacturing in the United States by providing “an immediate, clear, and stable source of product demand.”

Although transitioning to electric vehicles is critical to reducing emissions, even with aggressive clean vehicle regulations and incentives, it will take decades to complete the transition away from vehicles that use fossil fuels. The average age of light-duty vehicles is nearly 12 years; half of vehicles will take even longer to be replaced. Furthermore, even when the electricity grid is 100 percent clean and the last internal combustion engine is finally retired, highways will continue to enable sprawling development. Today, more than a football field’s worth of America’s natural areas is lost to development every 30 seconds. This pace is recklessly unsustainable. Federal transportation policy should support greater density and infill development as well as alternatives to driving to meet daily mobility needs.

Prioritize environmental justice and conservation

The climate order also makes a forceful call to “deliver environmental justice in communities all across America” and “conserv[e] our lands, waters, and biodiversity.” Reforming highway policy is essential to achieving both of these objectives. Building new highways cannibalizes greenfield land that serves as a critical habitat to numerous species as well as provides environmental services such as stormwater filtration, flood risk reduction, and carbon sequestration, among others. For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that each acre of wetland is able to store between 1 million and 1.5 million gallons of water, while reforested land can sequester anywhere from 1.1 to 9.5 metric tons of carbon dioxide per acre per year. Importantly, land use changes are not limited to highways themselves but also include low-density, auto-dependent development patterns that result in even more impacts on land, water, and biodiversity.

The damage from highway expansion is not limited to natural environments. Highways can also cause harm to local communities, leading to geographic barriers to opportunity, lost homes and businesses, and an increased pollution burden. For instance, the Texas Department of Transportation is planning on spending $7 billion to expand I-45 in north Houston. The environmental review process determined that the project will “displace 344 businesses, five churches, 160 single-family homes, 433 multi-family residential apartment units and an additional 486 ‘public and low-income housing multi-family units.’” Historically, such damage and displacement has fallen disproportionately on low-income communities and communities of color.


Transportation infrastructure affects almost every aspect of daily life, from how people move to where they work, live, and learn—not to mention the country’s overall fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. President Joe Biden’s recent executive order on climate is a powerful and important initial step toward directing the full power and resources of the federal government to address climate change.

To realize the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 and achieve greater environmental justice for historically marginalized low-income communities and communities of color, the federal government must ensure that its climate policy focuses on providing a sustainable, safe, affordable, and equitable transportation system. Federal transportation funding must shift away from building new, unpriced, general-purpose highway lanes and instead prioritize more congestion pricing, maintenance of the existing surface transportation system, and the expansion of sustainable alternatives to driving including public transit, passenger rail, biking, and walking.

Kevin DeGood is the director of Infrastructure Policy at the Center for American Progress.