As states and counties begin to plan for re-opening, we have a rare opportunity to design a new approach to travel, and more permanently address the hard-to-reach greenhouse gas emissions of the transportation sector that have dogged climate activists for years.
In my 13 years working to strengthen and expand clean energy and transportation on the Central Coast, there has never been a moment like this, with opportunities that may have been unthinkable just weeks ago.
Is telecommuting here to stay?
While the stay-home measures have been a strain on businesses and families, a few silver linings have emerged. As drivers stay home, America is finally free of traffic, and satellite imagery shows from China to Italy to California.
These past couple of months have shown that we are adaptable to new practices and routines, with people embracing video conferencing technology and putting off non-essential business travel. As I think of my own work and that of my colleagues, I’m impressed with how productive we are working from home. Even a minor retaining of virtual meetings and reduced travel could mean large benefits for pollution and traffic.
This is especially the case in Santa Barbara County, where high housing prices and a jobs/housing imbalance mean over 20,000 workers commute from Ventura and San Luis Obispo counties. Traffic would flow much smoother and greenhouse gas emissions would drop quickly if we all replaced 10 percent of our meetings and/or work days with teleconferencing, and committed to commuting by biking, walking, taking transit, and carpooling on other days. We’ve seen the public eagerly embrace Meatless Mondays and Taco Tuesdays—how about Work-at-Home Wednesdays, where companies pledge one day a week for the good of the planet?
Will a drop in oil prices substantially impact our region?
US oil demand has fallen a dramatic 30% over the last two months, and while there is uncertainty about how long demand will be suppressed and how low prices will go (they actually flipped to below $0 a barrel recently), we do know bankruptcies have increased in recent years, and hundreds more oil companies could go bankrupt if trends continue.
Low prices are affecting our region as well, as Petrorock recently withdrew their application to develop 200 oil wells near Santa Maria. While this is great news for our environment, the numbers of abandoned wells have been rising, with all of us paying the cost of cleaning up the environmental and financial messes. My hope is that the larger, remaining oil companies see the writing on the wall and finally use their giant capital investment potential and complex project management skills to diversify more broadly into renewable energy. With BP and other oil companies pledging to be carbon neutral by 2050, even before the COVID-19 crisis, perhaps these plans will be accelerated.
Could electric vehicle sales benefit from delays in car purchases?
While past behavior predicts that consumers will buy larger, cheap, oil-burning vehicles as gas prices go down, a looming recession will also slow new car purchases. Some analysts suggest that the drop in sales could buy time for electric vehicles (EVs). Automakers have been investing significantly to bring a large array of EVs to market, with 2021-2022 promising vast new offerings of exciting, lower priced models.
Emerging evidence indicates that we have hit peak car sales worldwide, and that regulations in China, Europe and some parts of the U.S. (led by California) will lead to higher requirements for EV sales in future years. By putting off a new car purchase this year, we might see drivers considering an EV when they return to the showrooms.
Can we permanently reduce air travel?
By far one of the most climate-impactful activities that most Americans engage in is air travel, with an international trip releasing as much carbon as months of driving. U.S. air travel has dropped 96% during shelter-in-place orders, and it is unlikely it will rebound to 2019 levels any time soon.
This mass grounding offers up an unprecedented opportunity to re-examine our habits and responsibilities, perhaps rewriting decades of narrative that have us thinking that air travel is essential. At a policy level, additional airline bailouts must include measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions per flight. We saw a comparable action in the 2008 Great Recession when auto companies capitulated to the Obama Administration’s push for more efficient cars.
In the corporate world, companies must reexamine their requirement for work-related travel and conferences. An increasing percentage of this could occur over video chat, just as it is now. And for the flying public, it’s time to question our jet setting ways and accept slightly more expensive flights, or even a frequent flyer tax, to make flights less carbon intensive. One of the single most impactful climate actions each of us could take would be to cut our airline travel in half, permanently.
Can we treat climate change as we have this health crisis?
The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated how ferociously we are all in this together, and how much we value our collective health. Let’s take this opportunity to ignite our community, unite our efforts, and make the coronavirus crisis a positive turning point for the climate – because our health and well being are at the center of that crisis too. The giant pause now is allowing us to look inward and realize that, when the world resumes, we can – and must – say “no” to going back to the status quo.
Learn more about these topics:
- Traffic Solutions Teleworking Webinar Series:
- Thursday May 7, 1:00 p.m. PDT – Remote Management: Getting the most from your employees during the pandemic and beyond
- Thursday May 14, 1:00 p.m. PDT – Telework Best Practices for the New Normal
- Thursday May 21, 1:00 p.m. PDT – What’s Next? Incorporating Telework into your Business Strategy
- Thursday May 28, 1:00 p.m. PDT – Real conversation with real Teleworkers and Employers
- CEC’s Electric Vehicles 101 Lunch ‘n’ Learn Webinar
Thursday, June 4, 2020
12:00 p.m. – 12:45 p.m.