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Air Quality and Sustainability Highlights

November/December 2009

Prepared by the Office of Planning, Environment and Realty
Federal Highway Administration

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Recent Events

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of Parties Concludes 15th Annual Meeting (COP15) in Copenhagen, Denmark. One of the goals of the two-week meeting held from December 7-18, was a new agreement on GHG reductions to follow the expiring Kyoto Protocol. Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern led the U.S. delegation, which included representatives from the Departments of State, Agriculture, Commerce, Energy, Interior, Transportation, and Treasury; the U.S. Agency for International Development; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; the U.S. Trade Representative; the National Security Council and the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Members of Congress also attended.

The U.S. Department of Transportation sent five delegates to Copenhagen. The Department hosted 4 events and co-hosted 2 others with EPA. The events were held at the U.S. Center, which provided an interactive forum to highlight the strong steps being taken at home and the United States' international leadership role to combat global climate change. The events covered:

John Holdren, President Obama's advisor on science and technology, gave a lecture on the state of climate change science. The President and other world leaders met for final negotiations on December 18. All countries but five agreed to "take note" of the final nonbinding Copenhagen Accord crafted by the United States, China, Brazil, South Africa and India. In the nonbinding accord, major emitters promise to cut emissions, record the pledges in a global registry and submit to international verification. The accord also includes a promise by developing countries to raise finances for actions in the developing world to address climate change.

Assistant to the President for Science and Technology Testifies on Capitol Hill. On December 2, John Holdren testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, which had invited him to answer questions about climate change science. Dr. Holdren discussed current and projected climate change impacts in the U.S. and the world and provided committee members with information on climate-science research activities, needs, and products. Dr. Holdren also addressed the recent climate-science e-mail controversy about whether there have been natural periods of warming in the past one or two thousand years that have been stronger than the warming episode now being experienced (oral statement). He noted that because of controversy around this issue, as reflected in the recently-disclosed e-mails, the National Academy of Sciences undertook a thorough review of all of the relevant data sets and methods of analysis. Its report, Surface Temperature Reconstructions for the Last 2,000 Years, published in 2006, concluded that "the preponderance of available evidence points to the conclusion that the last 50 years have been the warmest half century in at least the last 2,000 years." Furthermore, Dr. Holdren stated "The data set in question and the way it was interpreted and presented by these particular scientists constitute only a very small part of the immense body of data and analysis on which our understanding of the issue of climate change rests."

EPA Makes Two Findings on Greenhouse Gas Emissions. On December 7, the U.S. EPA made two findings on six GHG pollutants. The first, an "endangerment finding," means that the six named pollutants endanger public health and welfare. The second is a "cause or contribute finding" that light duty vehicles contribute to GHG pollution that threatens public health and welfare. This EPA action will enable it to finalize regulations on GHG emissions from light-duty vehicles (see lead article in September newsletter).

EPA Issues First Fuel Economy Trends Report including CO2 Emissions. "Light-Duty Automotive Technology, Carbon Dioxide Emissions, and Fuel Economy Trends: 1975 through 2009" shows that since 2004 average fuel economy has increased by 9%, resulting in an almost equal drop in average CO2 emissions of 8%. This is because CO2 emissions directly relate to fuel use (i.e., auto engines convert essentially all carbon in the fuel to CO2), unlike other vehicle emissions, which vary depending on factors such as the vehicle's air pollution control technology and maintenance. The fuel economy trend since 2004 reverses the long period of decreasing fuel economy and increasing CO2 emissions from 1987 through 2004. For 2008, the last year for which EPA has final data from automakers, the average fuel economy value was 21 mpg.

The latest fuel economy and CO2 emissions values reflect EPA's best estimate of "real world" vehicle fuel economy. The miles per gallon (mpg) values, which are posted on all new vehicles and are included in the Fuel Economy Guide, are about 20 percent lower, on average, than the corresponding fuel economy values that vehicle manufactures must meet to comply with the U.S. DOT's corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards. The EPA values reflect a mathematical adjustment that brings the mpg estimates closer to consumers' fuel economy experience by factoring in realistic speeds and acceleration, air conditioning, ambient temperatures, etc. EPA began making the adjustment with model year 2008 vehicles.

State and Local News

Florida-Dutch Cooperation on Climate Change Adaptation Deepens
The University of South Florida (USF), in Tampa, held a one-day event on November 18 that focused on the potential impacts of climate change on Tampa Bay and adaptation efforts. Sectors addressed included transportation, water resources and power generation. The conference was the second in a series of "Dutch Dialogues" held between Tampa and Rotterdam. Dutch officials discussed on-going efforts in the Netherlands to make that country more resilient to the impacts of climate change, including increased flooding.

The Netherlands has the world's largest flood protection project, so its expertise could be valuable for American coastal cities. During the first Dutch-American dialogue at USF planners suggested that natural features like marshlands serve as effective storm surge protection for places like New Orleans and Tampa. Kathleen Neill, Director of Policy Planning for the Florida Department of Transportation, said sea level has risen nine inches in Key West since 1917, requiring roads to be rebuilt due to the threat of flooding. According to Dale Morris, senior Economist at the Royal Netherlands Embassy, Rotterdam is a coastal city so threatened by climate change that businesses have moved further west of the city. Rob Kafalenos, FHWA, discussed the U.S. DOT study on impacts of climate change in the Gulf Coast region, which looked at the potential effects of storm surge and relative sea level rise and noted that we are developing a strategy for addressing climate change effects. For more information on the Dutch-American Dialogs, see:


Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting
(Click on Interactive Program and select "Energy and Climate Change")
January 10-14, 2010
Washington, DC

Electric Drive Transportation Association Conference & Annual Meeting
January 26 - 28, 2010
Washington, DC

9th Annual New Partners for Smart Growth Conference: Building Safe, Healthy and Livable Communities Conference
February 4 - 6, 2010
Seattle, WA

American Planning Association Annual Conference
April 10-13, 2010
New Orleans, LA
Climate-Change-Related Sessions


What is "cap and trade," which has been proposed to reduce GHG emissions?
There has been much discussion about "cap-and-trade" since the House passed its version of a climate change bill in May. Cap-and-trade is one form of "tradable emissions" systems, which are based on the principle that within an industry the ability and cost of emissions reductions varies from facility to facility. For example, owners of a power plant in a city may not be able to buy the land they need for pollution control equipment, while plant owners in a rural area can. When facilities are given a limit, or cap, on the amount of pollution they can emit, some may be able to reduce emissions more than required at a relatively low cost and can then sell the difference to a source with a higher cost of reducing its pollution.

In a cap-and-trade system, a limit is set for the total amount of pollution allowed, and then this amount is allocated among various entities-through grandfathering, auctioning, or another formula. The level of the cap is determined primarily by environmental need and economic cost, and can be lowered over time.

Several local, regional, and national cap-and-trade programs exist in the U.S., several of which were analyzed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for the Pew Center on Global Climate Change in Emissions Trading in the U.S.: Experience, Lessons, and Considerations for Greenhouse Gases. One with a long track record is the sulfur dioxide (SO2) cap-and-trade program established by the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 to reduce acid rain, which adversely affects things from ecosystems to limestone buildings. The program, which has been operating since 1995, has succeeded on multiple fronts. In 2008, the regulated sources emitted 7.6 million tons of SO2, which is 56% below the 1980 baseline level and well below the current cap of 9.5 million tons. As a result, between 1980 and 2008, SO2 in the air decreased 71%. Between 1989 and 2008, acid rain decreased more than 30% for the eastern U.S. and scientists have found signs of recovery in most of the lakes and streams studied there. For more information about Clean Air Markets, visit

Using the market lowers the overall cost of compliance compared to "command-and-control" regulations. For example, the annual cost of the SO2 program is about 75% lower than was estimated in 1990 when the legislation was being debated. And there are many other benefits, including those resulting from competition among developers of low-emissions solutions. Unlike with a command-and-control scheme, where regulators determine the acceptable solutions and thereby give an advantage to the suppliers of those solutions, under an emissions-trading system all vendors can compete. As a result, pollution-reduction-equipment makers have increased their products' pollution removal capability and durability, and have found ways to sell their byproducts. Likewise, by reducing regulatory costs, emissions-trading has lowered both control technology costs and consumer costs.

With a GHG cap-and-trade program that reduces oil imports, strengthened energy independence and security would be additional benefits. Perhaps the most significant benefit of emissions trading programs, though, is that they have proven to be politically viable because they can realistically promise benefits to all parties involved. To learn about limitations and prospects for using an emissions trading program to reduce GHG emissions, see the 2004 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, "Allowance Trading Offers an Opportunity to Reduce Emissions at Less Cost."

Next month: What's the hubbub about public opinion polls on climate change all about, and why should we care?

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