Last year I got into an argument with some colleagues about the concept of “decarbonization” for transportation. What does the term actually mean?
Nowadays, the most common definition for “decarbonization” is usually something squishy that includes stopping or reducing carbon gasses in the atmosphere. It’s a soft term in this regard – perhaps because policymakers and scientists are (rightfully) concerned that actual removal of carbon from our systems is too controversial and too much work.
But that’s also why I got into the argument with my colleagues about the definition of the concept and how pointless it is. The inability of the transport sector to actually remove carbon from our systems, instead coming up with more targets that we will all miss, is just another wave of greenwashing.
We can’t ignore the reality that the assumption that “the market” will help decarbonize transportation is wrong given that electric vehicles (EVs) are unaffordable for most. That fits with the trend that automakers have made vehicles (ICE or EVs)unaffordable for most consumers, and that the same manufacturers are forcing SUVs on consumers, and then trying to greenwash them. And lots of folks go along with it, because the reality is just too bleak.
Last year I read Petro-Subjectivity: De-Industrializing Our Sense of Self by Brett Bloom. It really helped me meditate on all the ways carbon and petroleum based products infuse our world. It’s not just that everything is plastic, but that we have built our society around the extraction, refinement, and use of petroleum. Which means it’s all carbon.
So back to the idea of “decarbonizing transportation”. The EPA put out this blueprint in 2023, but it’s really just focused on vehicles. Vehicles are important! But we can’t just focus on energy since that’s only part of the system. Let’s look at the infrastructure we use. The bitumen we need for asphalt. The way we make concrete. The processes we use to fabricate steel. The plastics we need to lightweight, safe vehicles.
And this is where I take issue with the term and the concept. Semantically it’s hollow when need more. But it’s also depressing to realize that this whole world was built in the image of oil companies.
It’s carbon all the way down.