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The Green New Deal and Converting Air Travel to High Speed Rail Travel

June 04, 2019
In their Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5ºC, released in October of 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that time is running out to avoid a global climate disaster. Specifically, to avoid a net temperature increase of 2ºC, we have until the year 2030 to reach net zero global carbon emissions.[1] In 2017, President Trump announced that the US would pull out of the Paris Agreement, and since then, there has been no national policy in place to address climate change.

During her campaign for Congress, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) made climate change a key issue. She introduced the idea of a Green New Deal (GND) to press for action on climate change as well as mitigate the negative economic impacts of it. The Sunrise Movement, a youth climate advocacy organization, joined Representative Ocasio-Cortez in advocating for the GND. On February 7, 2019, Representative Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced the bill to Congress.

The US has the second-highest carbon emission rates in the world, and to reduce climate change, the US must cut its carbon emissions.[2] The GND proposes that the US achieves this end by converting domestic air travel to inter-city high-speed rail travel (HSR) in the continental US. This article will examine the major environmental and economic considerations associated with this proposed change.

High-speed rail travel has lower greenhouse gas emissions than air travel, the main reason to switch. In 2016, transportation accounted for 28% of total US GHG emissions. Of this, 12% was produced by aircraft (so 3% of the total).[3][4] While the emissions of aircraft are high, they have been improving significantly with time. Jets in service in 2017 were more than 80% more efficient per seat kilometer than their early counterparts in the 1960s.[5] Another factor to consider is that as biodiesel becomes cheaper and more widely used, aircraft fuel efficiency will continue to rise.[6] However, the fossils fuels that aircraft continue to use are especially dangerous given their context. Due to their high cruising altitudes, any GHG emissions from aircraft cause more warming than GHG emissions at ground level and are therefore more perpetuating of climate change.[7] HSR does not have this additional threat associated with its emissions.

HSR is powered by electricity, not fuel. The promise seen in HSR is that the potential exists for it to be completely powered by renewable energy, while this option does not exist with the fuel needed for aircraft, as biodiesel still emits GHG when burned. In 2018, renewable energy sources accounted for nearly 20% of total US electricity production.[8] This number is up from 15% in 2016 and is continuing to rise.[9] One of the goals of the GND is for the US to achieve net-zero carbon emissions within the next 10 years.[10] While this goal has come under much scrutiny for its feasibility, the ride of renewable-powered HSR could be very beneficial in pushing the US closer to achieving it.

One of the main environmental concerns with HSR is infrastructure construction, which can cause habitat fragmentation, biodiversity loss, and ecosystem disruption if not properly managed.[11] When HSR is constructed through a habitat, it divides the area into sections, creating habitat fragmentation. This is dangerous because it can cause local extinctions if some populations become cut off from vital areas such as water sources.[12] Additionally, when HSR is constructed, the natural environment in the path of construction is degraded significantly, causing habitat loss for local species.[13] These effects can be mitigated by mindful construction of HSR routes with regard to the unique environmental needs of each area. For example, HSR routes could be constructed along major highway routes so that they do not create new major habitat fragmentation.

The possibility for HSR to significantly decrease GHG emissions in the US depends on how quickly the production of renewable energy increases. Habitat modification also plays a significant role in the environmental friendliness of HSR, with much research needed in order to mitigate the impacts of infrastructure construction. Environmental factors are just one of the ways to evaluate the efficiency of HSR. There are also several important economic factors to consider. Specifically, the monetary savings associated with the travel time, safety, and operating costs of HSR compared to that of motor-vehicle and air travel need to be compared to the upfront costs of building, operating, and maintaining the HSR infrastructure.

Assuming HSR can become a competitive alternative to motor-vehicle and air travel (in terms of travel time and ticket prices), the national economic savings could be significant. Due to increasing use of domestic transportation, the US spends more than $100 billion offsetting delays caused by motor-vehicle and air travel congestion each year.[14] The traffic congestion in the motor-vehicle sector also poses hefty safety costs (upwards of $300 billion) and an additional $140 billion in sacrificed labor productivity.[15][16] The main contributors to these costs are motor-vehicle accidents and collisions, which are proportional to the number of drivers on the road. By decreasing the number of people on the road, HSR would alleviate some of these motor-vehicle safety costs as well. Since HSR provides an additional mode of transportation for commuters, its implementation would not only decrease congestion and the costs associated with it, but also has the potential to decrease travel times, effectively increasing productivity levels and the gross domestic product (GDP).

In California alone, the projected costs of HSR construction are greater than $77 billion– and they keep rising.[17] But it is often overlooked that with sustainable infrastructure, the bulk of its total lifetime cost is its installation. As such, it is important to consider not only the money that HSR will save the government but also the value associated with the intangible benefits it will generate. HSR will provide new links among cities in the continental US, which will stimulate the economy in a number of ways. Not only will these inter-city connections increase the scope of geographically-accessible employers for US workers, but it will also boost multiple-city tourism and economic activity.[18] In fact, every $1 invested in HSR infrastructure is projected to have a $4 economic benefit resulting from it.[19] Moreover, the construction of HSR infrastructure itself stands to create a surge in available jobs (each $1 billion investment will create 24,000 jobs).[20] HSR will also reduce the US dependence on foreign oil, making the US more economically secure.[21]

Image: Climate change and high speed rail fast factsImage: Climate change and high speed rail fast facts

While it is difficult to quantify the precise environmental benefits that HSR can potentially provide, HSR is more environmentally-friendly than existing modes of domestic transportation (motor-vehicle and air travel). Thus, converting some of those travelers to HSR will reduce US carbon emissions. However, the extent of the environmental impact of HSR has to do with the types of primary energy sources that are being converted into electricity. Though HSR would bring the US one step closer to being able to use renewable energy sources on a large-scale, renewable energy alone cannot currently meet the demands needed for producing the electricity of HSR. There still needs to be significant innovation surrounding methods of storing renewable energy so that it can be used as a baseload power source for the grid.

Ultimately, whether or not the environmental benefits of HSR outweigh its economic costs hinges on the sophistication of the infrastructure that is built. For HSR to be a realistic option for travelers, ticket prices and travel times will have to be proportional to that of air and motor-vehicle travel. If the HSR infrastructure is capable of being a competitive transportation offering for passengers, its implementation would decrease US carbon emissions in the long-term. However, if the infrastructure that the US realistically builds is unable to compete with other modes of domestic transportation, then billions of government dollars will go to waste. Moving forward with inter-city HSR as an alternative to domestic air travel requires a detailed cost-benefit analysis that considers both the potential economic costs and benefits as well as the effectual impact that investing in HSR will have on US fossil fuel consumption and carbon emissions.

Student Blog Disclaimer
  • The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.

References

   [1]https://report.ipcc.ch/sr15/pdf/sr15_spm_final.pdf

  [2]https://report.ipcc.ch/sr15/pdf/sr15_spm_final.pdf

   [3]https://www.epa.gov/greenvehicles/fast-facts-transportation-greenhouse-gas-emissions

  [4]https://www.epa.gov/regulations-emissions-vehicles-and-engines/regulations-greenhouse-gas-emissions-aircraft?smid=nytcore-ios-share

  [5]https://www.atag.org/facts-figures.html

  [6]https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/27/climate/airplane-pollution-global-warming.html

  [7]https://davidsuzuki.org/what-you-can-do/air-travel-climate-change/

  [8]https://cleantechnica.com/2018/08/28/us-renewable-energy-sources-surpass-nuclear-in-first-half-of-2018/

  [9]http://fortune.com/2018/02/18/renewable-energy-us-power-mix/

  [10]https://ocasio-cortez.house.gov/sites/ocasio-cortez.house.gov/files/Resolution%20on%20a%20Green%20New%20Deal.pdf

  [11]https://ag.umass.edu/sites/ag.umass.edu/files/pdf-doc-ppt/tws_overview_ms.pdf

  [12]https://ag.umass.edu/sites/ag.umass.edu/files/pdf-doc-ppt/tws_overview_ms.pdf

  [13]https://ag.umass.edu/sites/ag.umass.edu/files/pdf-doc-ppt/tws_overview_ms.pdf

  [14]https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2046043016301095#cesec160

  [15]https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2046043016301095#cesec160

  [16]https://www.apta.com/highspeedrail/benefits/Pages/default.aspx

  [17]http://time.com/5528095/california-high-speed-rail/

  [18]https://www.apta.com/highspeedrail/benefits/Pages/default.aspx

  [19]https://www.apta.com/highspeedrail/benefits/Pages/default.aspx

  [20]https://www.apta.com/highspeedrail/benefits/Pages/default.aspx

  [21]https://www.apta.com/highspeedrail/benefits/Pages/default.aspx

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RESOURCE SPOTLIGHT:

  • <h3>MapStats</h3><p> A feature of FedStats, MapStats allows users to search for <strong>state, county, city, congressional district, or Federal judicial district data</strong> (demographic, economic, and geographic).</p><p> Quick link: <a href="http://www.fedstats.gov/mapstats/" target="_blank">http://www.fedstats.gov/mapstats/</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>The World Bank Data (U.S.)</h3><p><img width="130" height="118" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/130/height/118/484_world-bank-logo.rev.1407788945.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image484 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/130/height/118/484_world-bank-logo.rev.1407788945.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/130/height/118/484_world-bank-logo.rev.1407788945.jpg 3x" data-max-w="1406" data-max-h="1275"/>The <strong>World Bank</strong> provides World Development Indicators, Surveys, and data on Finances and Climate Change.</p><p> Quick link: <a href="http://data.worldbank.org/country/united-states" target="_blank">http://data.worldbank.org/country/united-states</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>Internal Revenue Service: Tax Statistics</h3><p><img width="155" height="200" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/155/height/200/486_irs_logo.rev.1407789424.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image486 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/155/height/200/486_irs_logo.rev.1407789424.jpg 2x" data-max-w="463" data-max-h="596"/>Find statistics on business tax, individual tax, charitable and exempt organizations, IRS operations and budget, and income (SOI), as well as statistics by form, products, publications, papers, and other IRS data.</p><p> Quick link to <strong>Tax Statistics, where you will find a wide range of tables, articles, and data</strong> that describe and measure elements of the U.S. tax system: <a href="http://www.irs.gov/uac/Tax-Stats-2" target="_blank">http://www.irs.gov/uac/Tax-Stats-2</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>Congressional Budget Office</h3><p><img width="180" height="180" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/180/height/180/380_cbo-logo.rev.1406822035.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image380 lw_align_right" data-max-w="180" data-max-h="180"/>Since its founding in 1974, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has produced independent analyses of budgetary and economic issues to support the Congressional budget process.</p><p> The agency is strictly nonpartisan and conducts objective, impartial analysis, which is evident in each of the dozens of reports and hundreds of cost estimates that its economists and policy analysts produce each year. CBO does not make policy recommendations, and each report and cost estimate discloses the agency’s assumptions and methodologies. <strong>CBO provides budgetary and economic information in a variety of ways and at various points in the legislative process.</strong> Products include baseline budget projections and economic forecasts, analysis of the President’s budget, cost estimates, analysis of federal mandates, working papers, and more.</p><p> Quick link to Products page: <a href="http://www.cbo.gov/about/our-products" target="_blank">http://www.cbo.gov/about/our-products</a></p><p> Quick link to Topics: <a href="http://www.cbo.gov/topics" target="_blank">http://www.cbo.gov/topics</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED®)</h3><p><strong><img width="180" height="79" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/180/height/79/481_fred-logo.rev.1407788243.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image481 lw_align_right" data-max-w="222" data-max-h="97"/>An online database consisting of more than 72,000 economic data time series from 54 national, international, public, and private sources.</strong> FRED®, created and maintained by Research Department at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, goes far beyond simply providing data: It combines data with a powerful mix of tools that help the user understand, interact with, display, and disseminate the data.</p><p> Quick link to data page: <a href="http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/tags/series" target="_blank">http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/tags/series</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>National Bureau of Economic Research (Public Use Data Archive)</h3><p><img width="180" height="43" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/180/height/43/478_nber.rev.1407530465.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image478 lw_align_right" data-max-w="329" data-max-h="79"/>Founded in 1920, the <strong>National Bureau of Economic Research</strong> is a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization dedicated to promoting a greater understanding of how the economy works. The NBER is committed to undertaking and disseminating unbiased economic research among public policymakers, business professionals, and the academic community.</p><p> Quick Link to <strong>Public Use Data Archive</strong>: <a href="http://www.nber.org/data/" target="_blank">http://www.nber.org/data/</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>HUD State of the Cities Data Systems</h3><p><strong><img width="200" height="200" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/200/height/200/482_hud_logo.rev.1407788472.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image482 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/200/height/200/482_hud_logo.rev.1407788472.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/200/height/200/482_hud_logo.rev.1407788472.jpg 3x" data-max-w="612" data-max-h="613"/>The SOCDS provides data for individual Metropolitan Areas, Central Cities, and Suburbs.</strong> It is a portal for non-national data made available through a number of outside institutions (e.g. Census, BLS, FBI and others).</p><p> Quick link: <a href="http://www.huduser.org/portal/datasets/socds.html" target="_blank">http://www.huduser.org/portal/datasets/socds.html</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>Federal Aviation Administration: Accident & Incident Data</h3><p><img width="100" height="100" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/100/height/100/80_faa-logo.rev.1402681347.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image80 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/100/height/100/80_faa-logo.rev.1402681347.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/100/height/100/80_faa-logo.rev.1402681347.jpg 3x" data-max-w="550" data-max-h="550"/>The NTSB issues an accident report following each investigation. These reports are available online for reports issued since 1996, with older reports coming online soon. The reports listing is sortable by the event date, report date, city, and state.</p><p> Quick link: <a href="http://www.faa.gov/data_research/accident_incident/" target="_blank">http://www.faa.gov/data_research/accident_incident/</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>NOAA National Climatic Data Center</h3><p><img width="200" height="198" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/200/height/198/483_noaa_logo.rev.1407788692.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image483 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/200/height/198/483_noaa_logo.rev.1407788692.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/200/height/198/483_noaa_logo.rev.1407788692.jpg 3x" data-max-w="954" data-max-h="945"/>NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) is responsible for preserving, monitoring, assessing, and providing public access to the Nation’s treasure of <strong>climate and historical weather data and information</strong>.</p><p> Quick link to home page: <a href="http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/" target="_blank">http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/</a></p><p> Quick link to NCDC’s climate and weather datasets, products, and various web pages and resources: <a href="http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/data-access/quick-links" target="_blank">http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/data-access/quick-links</a></p><p> Quick link to Text & Map Search: <a href="http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cdo-web/" target="_blank">http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cdo-web/</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>National Center for Education Statistics</h3><p><strong><img width="400" height="80" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/400/height/80/479_nces.rev.1407787656.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image479 lw_align_right" data-max-w="400" data-max-h="80"/>The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) is the primary federal entity for collecting and analyzing data related to education in the U.S. and other nations.</strong> NCES is located within the U.S. Department of Education and the Institute of Education Sciences. NCES has an extensive Statistical Standards Program that consults and advises on methodological and statistical aspects involved in the design, collection, and analysis of data collections in the Center. To learn more about the NCES, <a href="http://nces.ed.gov/about/" target="_blank">click here</a>.</p><p> Quick link to NCES Data Tools: <a href="http://nces.ed.gov/datatools/index.asp?DataToolSectionID=4" target="_blank">http://nces.ed.gov/datatools/index.asp?DataToolSectionID=4</a></p><p> Quick link to Quick Tables and Figures: <a href="http://nces.ed.gov/quicktables/" target="_blank">http://nces.ed.gov/quicktables/</a></p><p> Quick link to NCES Fast Facts (Note: The primary purpose of the Fast Facts website is to provide users with concise information on a range of educational issues, from early childhood to adult learning.): <a href="http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/" target="_blank">http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/#</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>The Penn World Table</h3><p> The Penn World Table provides purchasing power parity and national income accounts converted to international prices for 189 countries/territories for some or all of the years 1950-2010.</p><p><a href="https://pwt.sas.upenn.edu/php_site/pwt71/pwt71_form.php" target="_blank">Quick link.</a> </p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>USDA Nutrition Assistance Data</h3><p><img width="180" height="124" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/180/height/124/485_usda_logo.rev.1407789238.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image485 lw_align_right" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/180/height/124/485_usda_logo.rev.1407789238.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/180/height/124/485_usda_logo.rev.1407789238.jpg 3x" data-max-w="1233" data-max-h="850"/>Data and research regarding the following <strong>USDA Nutrition Assistance</strong> programs are available through this site:</p><ul><li>Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) </li><li>Food Distribution Programs </li><li>School Meals </li><li>Women, Infants and Children </li></ul><p> Quick link: <a href="http://www.fns.usda.gov/data-and-statistics" target="_blank">http://www.fns.usda.gov/data-and-statistics</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>